‘Often mistrusted’: UK stats watchdog criticises COVID-19 test data

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s statistics watchdog chided the government on Tuesday for publishing data on coronavirus tests that it said were “far from complete and comprehensible”.

A government and NHS advert is seen on a billboard in London, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), London, Britain, June 2, 2020. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

“The aim seems to be to show the largest possible number of tests, even at the expense of understanding,” David Norgrove, the head of the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA), wrote in a letter to Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

“It is also hard to believe the statistics work to support the testing programme itself.”

Criticism from the independent UKSA is likely to add to questions surrounding the government’s handling of a pandemic that has killed almost 50,000 people in the United Kingdom, according to the latest data.

Concerns over the test data first came to light when the government set itself an ambitious target to carry out 100,000 tests per day by the end of April – a goal it said it met.

But in doing so, it included in its figures tests mailed out to people but not necessarily completed.

“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,” Norgrove said.

The health ministry was not immediately available to comment on Norgrove’s letter. Norgrove said it was heartening that health ministry officials were cooperating with regulators to improve their statistics.

But he was clear that they were unacceptable in their current form and that mistakes should not be repeated in data for the new test-and-trace system, he said which needed clear metrics for success.

Hancock, in an earlier letter to Norgrove dated May 27, said he strongly supported transparent and high quality data.

“I think it is important to demonstrate how good, high-quality data can be used to drive forward our response to this virus, and to build confidence and trust in our figures as we do so,” Hancock wrote.

In his response, Norgrove said he warmly welcomed Hancock’s support for high quality data.

“But the testing statistics still fall well short of its expectations,” Norgrove said.

“It is not surprising that given their inadequacy data on testing are so widely criticised and often mistrusted.”

Reporting by Andy Bruce; editing by Guy Faulconbridge

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