Coronavirus: Govt will 'strive to improve' data after watchdog criticises Downing Street presentation

·3-min read

A cabinet minister has told Sky News the government will "strive to improve" its data operation after the official statistics watchdog issued a rare rebuke, warning the public could be confused by the depiction of COVID information.

Business minister Nadhim Zahawi told Kay Burley that the administration will "listen very carefully to the official statistics watchdog and make sure we respond accordingly".

The UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) said there was a danger that confidence in official figures could be undermined if they were not "supported by transparent information being provided in a timely manner".

The UKSA's warning comes after controversy over data presented at Saturday's Downing Street news conference, when the prime minister announced England would be going into lockdown.

Key features of many of the models presented in the news conference were not published on the government website, so it was not possible for anyone to see how they were created.

The Daily Telegraph has today reported that the projections used by the government to suggest that the second peak of the coronavirus pandemic could see a death rate far higher than the first have been revised down to be less severe.

The data shown at Saturday's announcement of a new lockdown indicated the UK could in some scenarios see 1,500 deaths from COVID every day by early December - but has now been revised to hit a peak of 1,010.

Mr Zahawi added: "Some people were critical about some of the models - and they are models.

"The important thing to remember is the clarity with which Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England, demonstrated not modelling, not forecasts, but real numbers of people in hospitals with COVID going up."

Pressed on the warning from the UKSA, Mr Zahawi said: "We will strive to improve."

Asked about the government's use of data earlier this week, Boris Johnson said: "We try to make things as clear as we possibly can."

However, he acknowledged that the "projections vary widely" and there was also a "political judgment" to be made in order to take into account economic factors.

Mr Johnson said some of the facts were "irrefutable", such as the number of deaths and people in hospital.

"I can't quarrel with those data, we have to act on those data and collectively, that's what we're going to do," he said.

In a statement, the UKSA said it was essential for the government to use statistics "in a way that promotes transparency and clarity" by making clear the source of the information and the full figures behind it.

In a blog published alongside UKSA's statement, Mary Gregory, deputy director for regulation at the Office for Statistics Regulation - the part of UKSA which regulates statistics in the UK - referred directly to the news conference on Saturday.

She said it did not meet its standard for sharing data.

Ms Gregory criticised the Mr Johnson's reference to "the reasonable worst-case scenario", a model used for operational planning, when "the data and assumptions for this model had not been shared transparently".

She also criticised some of the devolved governments of the UK for their presentation of data.

Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford had posted slides on Twitter rather than the government website, she said, adding that hospital capacity was not routinely published in Scotland.

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In its statement, the UKSA identified a series of measures governments should take to support trust in data.

The regulator said: "It is clear that those working on the pandemic face significant pressures.

"But full transparency is vital to public understanding and public confidence in statistics and those who use them."

A Downing Street spokesperson said: "Our approach throughout this unprecedented global pandemic has been to increase transparency around the government's response to coronavirus."

They added: "We continue to work hard to improve the data we publish where necessary, and our efforts and statistical reporting has been recognised by the UK Statistics Authority, which said 'there is a continual process of improvement'."