Scrap the unreliable daily Covid data updates before people become addicted to them, say experts

·4-min read
Some experts have called for the Government to stop publishing daily coronavirus data - Jacob King/PA Wire
Some experts have called for the Government to stop publishing daily coronavirus data - Jacob King/PA Wire

Covid data updates on the Government’s online dashboard are becoming increasingly unreliable, experts have warned, as it emerged up to 70 per cent of coronavirus patients in hospital were primarily being treated for other problems.

Some also believe daily coronavirus statistics should be phased out in the coming months, amid fears people are becoming "addicted" to the figures.

Latest statistics from NHS England showed that in the East Midlands, just 533 (29 per cent) of the 1,817 people included in coronavirus hospital data were being treated primarily for the virus.

For England as a whole, nearly half (47.9 per cent) of Covid patients were admitted to hospital for other conditions, but also tested positive.

This week, it also emerged that the number of daily reported deaths is starting to diverge significantly from registered Covid deaths recorded by the Office for National Statistics. Sajid Javid has now admitted the dashboard figures are too high.

Deaths are reported as Covid on the dashboard if they occur within 28 days of a positive test. But so many people are now being diagnosed with omicron that a large proportion of natural deaths are now also ending up in the figures.

Francois Balloux, professor of computational systems biology at University College London, said: “Until recently, monitoring deaths within 28 days of testing positive was a good proxy - it mirrored the real world.

“Now that is obviously not the case. At the moment, the numbers look horrible and worse than they should.

“The upside is they will soon look fantastic. I think we’re in a better situation than we have ever been since March 2020, and especially in the UK, I am pretty optimistic that we can soon call a day and then we’re finished.”

For the week ending January 7, the Government reported 1,282 deaths. However, the Office for National Statistics registered only 992, of which just 712 had Covid as the primary cause of death.

Usually, Office of National Statistics data is higher because it also includes care home deaths. Now the trend has changed, with dashboard figures much higher than those published by the ONS.

Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, said: “It's always been the case that the data was unable to discriminate between people in hospital, or people who died, because of Covid-19 rather than with Covid-19.

“It will be important to understand the future impacts of Covid-19 and the only way you can do that is to record numbers, just the same way we do with other important infections. But the assumptions and potential errors inherent in those figures do need to be acknowledged more.”

Experts are also growing concerned that Britain is becoming “addicted” to the figures. They believe they should be phased out in the coming months.

Prof Balloux added: “Part of the transition out of the pandemic is stopping people feeling so obsessed by case numbers and hospitalisations, because it’s not entirely healthy. We’re all a bit addicted to it.

“I’m not in favour of scrapping the dashboard right now because cases are pretty high and it might spark panic, with people feeling the numbers are being hidden from them.

“But maybe soon we could start doing it every other day, then weekly. To some extent, the ideal situation is that people lose interest.”

Covid data dashboard 'remains a valuable source'

Documents released on Thursday also show that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) is concerned that the data is becoming difficult to interpret in real-time, because of the high community prevalence of omicron and changes in behaviour and testing.

“There is uncertainty about current trends in the number of new infections, particularly as a result of changes to testing policy and behaviours,” the Sage minutes stated.

“An increasing proportion of these reported admissions are positive tests amongst people admitted primarily for reasons other than Covid-19, reflecting the very high community prevalence.”

Other scientists said it was important to keep publishing the daily Covid figures to help keep track of the epidemic. However, they said more should be done to highlight the problems with the data.

Nigel Marriott, an independent statistician, said: “The dashboard is an excellent tool so I think we should still use it, but people do need to understand what the data says and what it doesn’t say.”

Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, added: “It does look like we are starting to see people dying with Covid but not because of Covid in the data, though the majority 75 per cent of deaths are still because of Covid.

“This is not a reason for stopping publication of the daily data on the DHSC dashboard, which remains a valuable source for tracking the current epidemic in the UK.”

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