UK Statistics Authority calls out Tories for misleading COVID-19 testing figures

Tory Health Secretary Matt Hancock received scathing criticism of official government figures in a letter published today (2 June 2020) from David Norgrove chairman of the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA).

The watchdog’s response to government publication of official data on COVID-19 tests in England described the figures as of “limited value” and called out that the “aim seems to be to show the largest possible number of tests, even at the expense of understanding”.

Throughout the pandemic Boris Johnson’s cabinet have rightly emphasised the importance of a proper testing regime and capacity. Nevertheless they have consistently missed their own targets and have made widespread use of dubious figures.

The government announced on Sunday that they had met their target of increasing coronavirus testing capacity to 200,000 a day by the end of May. However the number of tests actually being carried out is far lower. Only 115,000 on Sunday itself.

The letter from the UKSA chairman stated, “Statistics on testing perhaps serve two main purposes. The first is to help us understand the epidemic, alongside the ONS survey, 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.”

In what will be a surprising ‘technicality’ to many, it was revealed that “the headline total of tests [used by the government for PR purposes] adds together tests carried out with tests posted out.”

Mr Norgrove’s official response pulled no punches in relation to the misleading use of the data during the government’s daily press briefings, “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 slides used in the daily press conference do not show the date when the tests were carried out.

The notes to the daily slides rightly say that some people may be tested more than once and it has been widely reported that swabs carried out simultaneously on a single patient are counted as multiple tests. But it is not clear from the published data how often that is the case.

The UKSA chairman concluded, “the testing statistics still fall well short of its expectations. It is not surprising that given their inadequacy data on testing are so widely criticised and often mistrusted.”

This will come as another blow to Boris Johnson’s increasingly beleaguered cabinet, still attempting to recover from the scandal surrounding Dominic Cummings.

Official statistics now have the UK with the second highest number of COVID-19 deaths globally at 39,045 as of Monday 1 June 2020. The real figure is thought to be closer to 60,000.

Challenge News Desk

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