ONE of the things you acquire as a reporter, besides bad habits, is a nose for the fine print of government.

While press releases invariably tout only achievements, the impartial statistics behind them are where you turn for the more balanced picture.

Recently, for example, one cabinet secretary was telling the world how much better the latest exam results were compared to the previous year.

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A closer look at the detailed statistics, however, showed that this slight improvement had come after years of steady decline.

As the longer term was politically inconvenient, so the cabinet secretary had chosen the most advantageous baseline for presentational purposes.

That this happened in the Scottish Government is merely coincidental.

All governments of all stripes do it.

If you pick the right baseline, you can make almost any set of numbers flatter your administration.

This need to set numbers in context has been playing on my mind in light of the coronavirus outbreak.

The news is full of death tolls at home and abroad, and they all sound heart-stoppingly scary.

But what is generally missing is any sense of a baseline.

How many deaths occurred before the coronavirus came among us?

This is not a subject most people tend to dwell on.

Perhaps you, like me, remember the time you first woke up to your own mortality as a child. That sense of panicky indignation and unfairness and wondering if there had somehow been a mistake.

Most of us have been trying to blot it out ever since, first about ourselves and then about our families.

But I think a few numbers about the scale of everyday death are useful in the present context.

This is absolutely not to downplay the gravity of the pandemic.

Nicola Sturgeon was sadly damn right when she told Holyrood this week that ‘This is not a drill’.

The government guidance on hygiene, social distancing and isolation is not an option.

Reading the UK Government’s emergency Coronavirus Bill, published on Thursday, is chilling.

Very soon the UK and devolved governments will have the power to direct the “death management industry”, meaning funeral businesses, to do whatever is needed to cope with the extra demand.

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The state will be able to requisition “facilities, premises, vehicles, equipment or anything else” to deal with local shortages in the transport, storage and disposal of dead bodies.

The worst-case planning assumption is that during the virus’s three-week peak, in the heat of summer, the death rate “would far exceed existing capacity”.

Burial and cremation would become industrial in nature.

Remember, that is a worst-case scenario. But it is possible.

But before everyone goes back to that childhood sense of panic, here are some numbers.

In 2018, the number of deaths recorded in Scotland was 58,503.

That is a daily average of 160.

In England and Wales, the 2018 total was 541,589 and the daily average 1,484. In Northern Ireland it was 15,922 in total in 2018, with a daily average of 44.

Across the whole UK, the death total for 2018 was 616,014, a daily average of 1,688.

If you really want to stand back, global deaths are around 58m a year, an average of 150,000 every day.

As I type there have been six deaths from coronavirus in Scotland since the first was confirmed on March 13.

Over the same period, based on the daily average in 2018, there would have been around 310 deaths from cancers, 285 deaths from circulatory disease, 125 from heart disease, 74 from strokes, 137 from respiratory disease, 61 from COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease], 22 from alcohol, and 48 from accidents.

That’s just in Scotland, with its average of 1,125 deaths each week.

These are a background constant, but as they are largely unreported, the new deaths from coronavirus can sound apocalyptic out of context.

Because we try to block it out, we are not used to confronting death in our midst, but it is always there in one unwelcome form or another.

Also remember that the health and other public services at risk of being swamped are not hopeless.

They are geared, for reasons of efficiency and economy, around a narrow range of circumstances.

They have evolved around routine. They can flex, but it’s difficult.

That does not mean all is lost. It means heeding the advice and minimising the strain.

As I said, this is not to diminish the gravity of coronavirus.

It will be a new cause of death and add significantly to all the others, but it is not a stand-alone phenomenon.

There will be an overlap between those killed by coronavirus and those who would have died in the coming months from other causes.

It is a disease, like many, which is worst for the old and already sick.

I am not glib about that. I have two elderly parents, one with COPD.

But please remember this is a mild disease for the vast majority, and that there is a context, there is a baseline, and there is always hope.