Monday, 26 Jul 2021

Coronavirus: Watchdog warns Downing Street news briefing data could ‘confuse the public’

The official statistics watchdog has issued a rare rebuke to the government and its scientific advisors, warning that their use of coronavirus data could “confuse the public and undermine confidence in the statistics.”

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.”

Asked about the government’s use of data today, Boris Johnson said: “We try to make things as clear as we possibly can,” although 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.

The UKSA’s warning comes after controversy over data presented at Saturday’s Downing Street press conference, when the PM announced that England would be going into lockdown.

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

In a statement, the UKSA said it was essential for the government of the UK 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 press conference on Saturday.

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

Ms Gregory criticised the PM’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’.”

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