New dodgy data row as UKHSA warned over ‘implausible’ Covid statistics

The UK Health Security Agency is facing a fresh “dodgy data” row after being warned by the statistics regulator over a controversial claim about the spread of omicron.

In a letter to the UKHSA, the Office for Statistics Regulation warned that Sajid Javid’s claim that there were 200,000 omicron infections a day by mid-December “caused confusion” after officials failed to justify the figure for a further three days.

The warning raises further concerns about UKHSA’s handling of Covid figures after Dame Jenny Harries, the body’s chief executive, was accused of disseminating “dodgy data” that inflated the potential risk of the omicron variant.

William Wragg, the Conservative chairman of the Commons public administration committee, said on Saturday night: “If ministers are making use of statistics they also at the same time should reference precisely the underlying assumptions and modelling.

“There is a danger of public confidence in Covid-19 data being put at risk. They also should not just push worst-case scenarios to increase the impact of what they are saying.”

Mr Javid cited the UKHSA estimate in a Commons address to MPs last month, as he laid the groundwork for more stringent restrictions to slow the transmission of the variant.

At the time, Prof David Spiegelhalter, a statistician at the University of Cambridge, said it was “a bit naughty” to produce the figure “without having a justification behind it”. Prof Spiegelhalter thought 45,000 daily infections was a more “plausible” figure. 

The number of people currently testing positive for Covid stood at 178,250 by Friday – up from 81,853 on the day of Mr Javid’s Dec 13 statement, in which he said: “The UKHSA estimates that the current number of daily infections are around 200,000.”

Number of Omicron Covid cases in UK

When UKHSA did publish a methodology memo outlining the modelling behind the claim, on Dec 16, it revealed that the modelling had been abandoned because it was no longer correct to assume that the doubling rate of the variant would remain constant.

In the letter to UKHSA, Ed Humpherson, who is head of the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR), said: “The Secretary of State … mentioned an estimate of the daily number of infections of Covid-19, which was initially also unsupported by data. This caused confusion and some speculation in the media, which distracts from the message the statistics are conveying.

“An explanation of the methodology used to arrive at the daily number of infections was published on 16 December. OSR has previously made clear its expectation that data and methods should be made equally available to all before any planned statement is made. Transparency of data used to inform decisions is vital to public understanding and public confidence.

“In this case, the delay between the use of the figure and the publication of the data was unsatisfactory.”

In the letter, dated Dec 17, Mr Humpherson said he understood that health officials were planning to ensure that in future “announcements of high importance such as this will be suitably supported by data, if not before, then as soon as possible afterwards”.

He added: “I appreciate the urgency of this particular situation meant that the statement used the most up-to-date data possible. But the general principles of transparency should still apply.” 

Last month, The Telegraph revealed that Dame Jenny was the source of a contested claim by Mr Javid, the Health Secretary, that there was typically a 17-day lag between patients becoming infected and requiring hospitalisation.

Independent experts pointed to Office for National Statistics data, which suggested an average delay of nine or 10 days.

The claim by Mr Javid was seen as an attempt to strengthen the case for urgent new Covid restrictions, on the basis that the country could have been on the brink of a major spike in hospitalisations due to omicron. 

Dame Jenny has claimed that omicron was “probably the most significant threat we’ve had since the start of the pandemic”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *