Ministers were accused of using flimsy data after they relied on figures based on fewer than 100 pubs to justify the potential closure of tens of thousands of venues across the North of England.
It came as No10 faced a concerted backlash from local leaders and MPs over plans to subject millions of people living in the North to even tougher restrictions from next week.
Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty briefed MPs yesterday to tell them that a ‘significant proportion’ of exposure to coronavirus was happening in the hospitality sector.
He showed them a table which suggested that 32 per cent of transmission may be occurring in pubs, bars, cafes and restaurants.
Chris Whitty’s claim that a ‘significant proportion’ of exposure to coronavirus was happening in the hospitality sector has come under fire. With one Conservative MP describing the Government’s data as ‘incredibly thin’
But it emerged last night that the Public Health England data was based on a very small sample size.
It derived from contact tracing data referring to just 98 pubs and 67 cafes and restaurants.
A PHE spokesman said each reported case referred to two separate Covid-positive patients who had been in the same venue within the past week.
Last night the British Beer and Pub Association warned the Government that the data was not good enough to justify the closure of pubs.
Government data had claimed 32 per cent of transmission may be occurring in pubs, bars, cafes and restaurants, but it has emerged that data was taken from a sample of less than 170 businesses
The document that spilled the beans
The controversial data quoted by Professor Whitty is based on an ‘enhanced contact tracing’ exercise, the Department of Health said.
It asks people who they met – and where they met them. But it is based on a very small sample.
If two infected people both tell tracers that they have been to a venue in the past week, it is seen as an indication, but not proof, that the virus may have been transmitted between them.
But they don’t even have had to be there at the same time.
The data shows there were 98 occasions where two or more people told contact tracers they had been to the same pub.
Another 67 cases referred to people having been to the same cafe or restaurant.
One expert suggested 7,000 venues across the North would be forced to close. But Downing Street denied that any decisions had yet been taken on lockdown measures.
One Tory MP who attended the briefing said: ‘It is clear that the data to justify further action on hospitality is incredibly thin.
‘It is so weak they can’t even publish it.’
Professor Whitty also quoted data from the US of questionable relevance and appeared to suggest that the national 10pm curfew for pubs, bars and restaurants introduced last month was based on nothing more than the fact that other countries had imposed it.
Last night northern politicians lined up to condemn the Prime Minister for the ‘reckless’ plan to close all pubs and restaurants in the worst-hit areas.
Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor for Greater Manchester, told BBC Radio 4’s World At One: ‘I will not any more put up with a situation where they impose things on the North of England that will cause real damage to people’s lives.’
And Emma McClarkin, of the British Beer and Pub Association, said: ‘We are still yet to see the hard evidence in England that blanket measures to lock down pubs, with their strict adherence to government guidelines, will significantly stop the spread of the virus.’
But Ben Bradley, Tory MP for Mansfield, who took part in the call, said: ‘We talked about the North West and North East in particular, where we were talking about – in three weeks’ time – having hospitalisation levels higher than in the original peak.’
Steve Rotheram, the mayor of the Liverpool City Region, told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: ‘Quite simply the North should not be a petri dish for experimentation by central government.’
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick yesterday came close to confirming that action is looming.
‘It is correct to say the number of cases in the North West and the North East and a number of cities, particularly in the Midlands like Nottingham, are rising fast and that is a serious situation,’ he said.
‘We are currently considering what steps we should take, obviously taking the advice of our scientific and medical advisers, and a decision will be made shortly.’
Hospitality bosses have said the Government’s data is not enough to support a proposed closure of pubs in parts of the north – amid fears up to 7,000 venues could close down
Altus Group, a real estate advisor, estimated that 7,200 pubs in the North could be closed down – one in five of all English pubs.
Last night a Government spokesman admitted that the ‘early analysis’ did not constitute proof of transmission.
‘We are seeing coronavirus cases rise across the country, with particularly fast growth in the North East and North West,’ he said.
‘We constantly monitor the data and are considering a range of options to suppress the virus, protect communities and save lives.’