Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


The Guardian reports on a new research study that finds the overstretching of the NHS — particularly in the winter — has caused about 30,000 excess deaths in 2015. The government’s response is practically Trumpian:

A DH spokesman described the study as “a triumph of personal bias over research”. He added: “Every year there is significant variation in reported excess deaths, and in the year following this study they fell by nearly 20,000, undermining any link between pressure on the NHS and the number of deaths. Moreover, to blame an increase in a single year on ‘cuts’ to the NHS budget is arithmetically impossible given that budget rose by almost £15bn between 2009-10 and 2014-15.”

Demeaning experts who bring unpleasant news is the primary tactic.

As the Guardian article helpfully points out, the Department of Health is distracting attention by conflating two different notions of “excess deaths”. There is a periodic increase in death rates every winter, and this winter surge (relative to the rest of last year) has been smaller than in the previous years. But the study is estimating the secular increase in total death rates relative to previous years, a completely different quantity.

As for the “arithmetic impossibility”, this is part of the government communications strategy that presumes the public is all too simpleminded to have heard of inflation or population growth. (Or population ageing.) And it reflects the overly cunning government budget strategy of leaving NHS “frontline services” uncut, while slowly undermining them with drastic cuts to social services that have now left the highly-paid surgeons unable to do their jobs because of the inability to clear the fragile elderly out of the hospital beds to make room for new cases.

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