Vote Leave’s A&E analysis fails GCSE maths

by Jack Schickler | 23.05.2016

Michael Gove is a former education secretary. How odd that the latest “research” from Vote Leave, which he has cited approvingly, contains an error our teachers are supposed to root out in secondary school – at least for high achievers.

After wrongly saying that 5 million EU migrants could come to Britain by 2030, Vote Leave estimates that this will cause an extra 13 million accident and emergency (A&E) attendances. This would mean EU citizens would need emergency treatment on average two and a half times a year. By contrast, despite being older, our current population needs emergency treatment only once every three years.

Vote Leave compares the figures for cumulative net migration and A&E attendance from 2002 to 2014. It notices the two sets of numbers follow a similar trend showing, according to the campaigning group, a “very strong correlation”. It then concludes that one has an “effect” on the other, and that it can predict future A&E pressures by reference to its already wildly inflated migration predictions.

Extract from Vote Leave research

Extract from Vote Leave research

This is nonsense. To justify a prediction of this kind, you’d have to show not just that the numbers have historically followed a similar pattern, but demonstrate a causal relation between the two. 16-year-old schoolchildren are taught not to confuse correlation and causation, or extrapolate data without good reason. But this is exactly what Vote Leave does.

Using Vote Leave’s reasoning, if you found that – say – UK cat ownership had gone up at the same time that the temperature got warmer, you might conclude that felines cause temperature rises and that your next beach holiday should be somewhere with plenty of cats. The website Spurious Correlations notes the statistical relationship between US swimming pool drownings with the number of films starring Nicolas Cage – but, Vote Leave be warned, discouraging the production of Face/Off 2 is no substitute for having a trained lifeguard on duty.

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A&E attendances have gone up sharply over recent years, but the main causes are not EU migration. A recent report by the Nuffield Trust considers a range of factors, including age distribution, GP availability and the weather, but it does not mention migration. Nor do similar reports by the King’s Fund, or health sector regulator Monitor.

An ageing population is putting the NHS under strain. But these are largely British natives. EU migrants tend to be young and healthy, they contribute more in taxes than they claim in public services such as healthcare, and many of them improve NHS capacity by working in the health sector.

The NHS Chief Executive Simon Stevens said yesterday that the service had “benefitted enormously” from its 130,000 EU migrant nurses, doctors, and care workers. He also suggested that, on balance, the NHS would lose out from Brexit – given the risk of staff leaving, depreciation of the pound, and of a general economic downturn. Two ex-holders of the post, Nigel Crisp and David Nicholson, echoed his sentiments in the Sunday Times yesterday, and “prescribed a vote to stay in Europe”.

Vote Leave’s statistical error is not the only one in its “research”. The document is littered with mistakes, including the claim that Turkey will join the EU in 2020.

Vote Leave did not respond to our request for comment.

Edited by Hugo Dixon