Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of misleading the UK public after she was criticised by a statistics watchdog for making unsubstantiated comparisons about coronavirus rates in Scotland and England.
Scotland’s First Minister repeatedly claimed earlier this month that the prevalence of the virus was “five times” higher in England, and opponents said she had deployed the figure "to suggest her policy was working better than elsewhere in the UK".
She also used the statistic to justify her controversial refusal to rule out imposing quarantine on visitors crossing the border into Scotland and taking a different approach to Boris Johnson on air bridges.
But in an intervention described by her critics as “damning”, Ed Humpherson, Director General for Regulation at the Office for Statistics Regulation, said that the "uncaveated" comparison should never have been made as it was not backed up by sound data.
An investigation also found that the justification for the claim provided to the media who questioned its basis was different to the one provided to regulators, after Ms Sturgeon's officials changed their story.
The accusations of citing false figures will prove embarrassing for Ms Sturgeon, who has won widespread praise for her handling of the pandemic despite separate statistics published on Thursday confirming that Scotland has the third-highest rate of excess mortality deaths in Europe.
Scotland’s got the third highest rate of excess mortality in Europe yet poll after poll shows people think Sturgeon’s handled this all brilliantly.— Kirsten Muat (@kirstenRoseMuat) July 30, 2020
Turns out you can get away with anything so long as you have a slick media operation. https://t.co/TQzkUM801z
The rebuke came on the same day that she was named as the fifth “most eloquent” leader in the world by a panel of experts who praised her authenticity and compassion, but was accused by opponents of fuelling ugly protects on the border by making unsound comparisons with England about virus rates.
Jackson Carlaw, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said the use of the figure showed “party political thinking is woven through the fabric of this SNP government” and undermined Ms Sturgeon’s insistence that she had handled the pandemic in a non-partisan manner.
He added: “This flawed analysis was the centrepiece of policy, used to justify major decisions, to explain the easing of lockdown.
“When the Scottish tourism industry was crying out for a positive message, the First Minister refused to shut down the idea of closing the border.
“People across the country take the First Minister at her word, and now we know that they were repeatedly misled. Nicola Sturgeon must apologise.”
Only last week, Ms Sturgeon insisted she stood by the five times figure. Challenged following the watchdog's intervention, she did not repeat her “five times” claim, but said it remained clear that the virus prevalence was “significantly” lower in Scotland than in England. That claim from the SNP leader is backed up by data on Covid-19 deaths and confirmed cases, which are now proportionally much lower north of the border.
“The issue with the statistic I cited before was the UK, English part of that statistic has not been published,” she said at Holyrood. “That is not down to me, the UK Government hasn’t published it and I’d encourage them to do so.”
In fact, Mr Humpherson told the Scottish Government’s chief statistician that the sources used to justify the figure had been “been difficult to identify”. He went on to say he did not believe the sources eventually cited “allow for a quantified and uncaveated comparison of the kind that was made”.
The claim was based on separate reports produced north and south of the border using separate methodology with a UK estimate "used as a proxy for England", Scottish officials told regulators. Statisticians then compared "upper prevalence rates" in Scotland and England in separate reports to "corroborate" the initial figures although it remains unclear why upper estimates, which experts said would have meant an artificially high figure for England, rather than central estimates, were used.
Mr Humpherson added: “There are lessons to be learnt in this case, with different data sources being quoted to the media and to us. We expect that any figures used are appropriately sourced, explained and available in the public domain.
“The Office for Statistics Regulation will continue to monitor Scottish Government’s use of statistics and data.”
The intervention came just weeks after the authority criticised the Scottish Government for making unverified claims about antibody tests.
Miles Briggs, health spokesman for the Scottish Tories, said: “The First Minister’s use of these dodgy statistics even led to repeated warnings that the border could be closed which, in turn, triggered ugly protests that have damaged Scotland's reputation as a welcoming country.
“It is hard not to conclude that the First Minister pushed this unreliable comparison, with no context, for her own political purposes."
Meanwhile, the Office for National Statistics published excess mortality figures which showed Scotland had the third highest rate in Europe, behind only England and Spain. The figures show that by the week ending May 29, England had the highest rate of the 23 countries where data was available, with deaths 7.55 per cent higher than average, followed by Spain, with 6.65 per cent, and Scotland on 5.11 per cent.
Ian Murray, the Shadow Scottish Secretary, said the figures were a reminder that both Ms Sturgeon and Mr Johnson were guilty of “catastrophic failures”.
He added: “Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon must now take responsibility for why we were so badly prepared.
“The First Minister should also apologise for making false claims about prevalence rate comparisons and stop seeing everything through her constitutional prism.”
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: “The Scottish Government has been recognised by the Office for Statistics Regulation for its open approach in regularly publishing a wide range of transparent information.
“We continue to push the UK government to take the same approach and to publish Covid-19 prevalence statistics that would make this information publicly available.
“The decisions we are taking to ease lockdown restrictions while still suppressing the virus are based on prevalence data. It is legitimate to use the evidence that is available to highlight differences in prevalence.”