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Statistics watchdog blasts Matt Hancock over ‘inadequate’ figures on coronavirus testing

Matt Hancock is under fire from the UK Statistics Authority (PA)

3 min read

Figures on coronavirus testing released daily by the government are “far from complete and comprehensible”, the UK’s statistics watchdog has claimed.

In a scathing letter to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, UK Statistics Authority chair Sir David Norgrove said the way data on testing is currently analysed and presented to the public gives “limited value”.

He said testing statistics “fall well short of expectations”, claiming “it is not surprising that given their inadequacy data on testing are so widely criticised and often mistrusted”.

“Statistics on testing perhaps serve two main purposes,” the letter states.

“The first is to help us understand the epidemic… showing us how many people are infected, or not, and their relevant characteristics.

“The second purpose is to help manage the test programme, to ensure there are enough tests, that they are carried out or sent where they are needed and that they are being used as effectively as possible. The data should tell the public how effectively the testing programme is being managed.

“The way the data are analysed and presented currently gives them limited value for the first purpose. The aim seems to be to show the largest possible number of tests, even at the expense of understanding. It is also hard to believe the statistics work to support the testing programme itself. The statistics and analysis serve neither purpose well.”

Mr Hancock told yesterday’s coronavirus briefing figures for the government’s new track and trace testing system are not yet available, but that it was "up and running" and had been successful so far.

The figures relating to the number of people tested – which stood at 128,437 on Monday - includes those posted as well as carried out.

Sir David’s letter goes on: “The headline total of tests adds together tests carried out with tests posted out. This distinction is too often elided during the presentation at the daily press conference, where the relevant figure may misleadingly be described simply as the number of tests carried out. There are no data on how many of the tests posted out are in fact then successfully completed." 

The authority said the way the figures are presented in general is “difficult to understand” and urged the government to make changes to ensure they are comprehensible to the public.

I am sure you would agree that good evidence, trusted by the public, is essential to success in containing the virus,” the letter concludes.

Lib Dem leadership hopeful Layla Moran said ministers were eroding trust in politics and politicians by “spinning” the statistics.

“At a time like this, the Government should be having honest, grown-up conversations with people based on clear reporting and facts. They should be making decisions based on actual numbers of people tested, rather than stats that are spun to fit a political agenda,” she said.

“By continuing to withhold figures on the actual numbers of people being tested, and providing inadequate and confusing data, Government ministers are standing up in Downing Street and wilfully misleading the public.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said Mr Hancock had spoken directly with Sir David "and reiterated the department’s commitment to continuing to work closely with the UKSA to address their concerns".

They added: “We have sought to work closely with the UKSA throughout our response to coronavirus to ensure statistics, which are prepared in very challenging circumstances, are presented in the best way possible.

“Our approach throughout has been to increase transparency around the government’s response to coronavirus.”

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