Be more transparent about Covid stats to win public trust, government told

Watchdog says data used in press conferences has “not consistently been supported by transparent information provided in a timely manner”
The OSR said sources of data used in public briefings should be published in a prompt and transparent way. Photo: Eddie Mulholland/Daily Telegraph/PA Wire/PA Images

The UK’s statistics regulator has urged the government to be more transparent about its handling of coronavirus by publishing data used to justify its decisions and policies.

In a statement yesterday, the Office for Statistics Regulation said a failure to publish stats and information quoted in public briefings about coronavirus measures “could potentially confuse the public and undermine trust in the statistics”.

Statistics and data have taken an “increasingly prominent role in press conferences, media interviews and statements” during the pandemic to justify the UK and devolved governments’ decisions, the OSR said.

But this has “not consistently been supported by transparent information provided in a timely manner”.

“During times of rapid change there is an increased need for timely and detailed management information. It is important that ministers have up-to-date information to inform governments’ responses to the coronavirus pandemic,” the statement said.

But the regulator said it was also important that the public have access to this data when it is used to justify decisions that affect them – such as restrictions on shops, socialising and travel.

The OSR identified a number of gaps in the data being provided to the public about coronavirus measures. Information on hospital capacity – one of the main criteria used to decide on regional and national lockdown measures in England – is not routinely published in England or Scotland, for example.

And where data sources are made public, the format and place of publication are not always consistent. When Wales’s first minister Mark Drakeford announced a “firebreak lockdown” on 23 October, the slides containing the figures used in his presentation were published on Twitter – but the OSR said it would have been easier for people to use if the data sources had been published on an official website in a consistent way.

Data should be published in a “clear and accessible form with appropriate explanations of context and sources”, and in a timely manner, the OSR said.

The watchdog also suggested comparisons could be useful, where appropriate, to give context to data being given to the public. In the case of the Welsh firebreak, this could include comparing Torfaen with Oldham.

Timeliness is also important to transparency, the OSR said. It noted that the data sources used in a series of slides by the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser in a presentation before the PM’s announcement of a national lockdown – while welcome – were published three days after the slides themselves.

“It is good that it is now standard practice to publish the sources for data quoted in No.10 coronavirus conferences and in future we hope to see the information consistently published at the same time as the slides,” the statement said.

The watchdog also noted that prompt and clear publication of information would mean there was no need for leaks, which have been frequent over the last few months and which it said are the “antitheses of the expectations” in its code of practice for statistics.

Commenting on the statement, UK Statistics Authority chair Sir David Norgrove said: “I recognise the pressures faced by all those working on decisions related to coronavirus. But full transparency of data used to inform decisions is vital to public understanding and public confidence.”

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