Monday, January 18, 2010

Stats? stuck

At the Oxford Farming Conference during the first week of January, The Minister of State for (some) Animal's Health, the Right Honourable Hilary Benn MP., responding to criticism of his non-policy on bTB, hinted that unofficial Defra figures are showing that disease levels fell during 2009.

He is being his usual economic-with-the-truth self or as has been said of his ilk, "if their lips are moving, they're lying".

When there is just a single source of infectious disease, then tracking either New Breakdowns or New Confirmed Breakdowns is a good measure of how control measures are working - or not. But with only sentinel tested cattle under any semblance of Defra control, and a maintenance reservoir of TB encouraged by statute to let rip, in this instance it may not be the most accurate. Defra statistics have several lines of monthly statistics - or they do if they are updated [more on that later] - each giving different information, or the same information in different format..

There is a column showing the number of herds registered on the VetNet system, another showing how many of these are under restriction because of a 'TB incident'; then further totals, including how many of these are 'New Breakdowns', or even 'New Confirmed Breakdowns'. And it is latter which the Minister was clutching when he spoke last week. And it is this heavily sanitised figure which he presents to his European masters.

In the year to August, (which appears to have the Defra statisticians stuck in groove at the moment) the figure of New TB breakdowns is lower than that recorded in the same period during 2008. But, the rest of us, languishing under herd movement restrictions 'because of a TB incident' is up 10.5 per cent on 2008, and almost double the figure of 2006. Cattle slaughtered is about the same. But by mid January, Defra have usually produced the TB stats for November, not August. Gardening leave? Changing the data collection methods? Rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic? No idea. But if the news was good, you can bet it would have been published.

The figure for New Confirmed TB Breakdowns equates to around 3.7 per cent of the national herd, and this is the figure Benn is clutching in his Ministerial briefcase. But the number of herds under TB restriction annually is approaching 10 per cent, and to August 2009 - remember August? buckets and spades etc.,? The total was 8.2 per cent of the cattle herds in GB.

This duplicitous hubris also extends to Defra's 'other species' tables, with numbers of alpacas stuck at a comforting 18 on Defra's tables, while a quick round robin telephone call to distraught owners extracted a figure of over 200 animals dead from TB - ten times the 'official' one. Further questioning drew a reluctant 'possibly VLA samples?' as an explanation for the difference.

Polite note to Defra. Bacteria do not respond to bullying, lines on maps or rearranged, delayed or selected statistics of their progress. They just spread.

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