RSS demands ‘full review’ of government’s use of health statistics

One year on from their Covid-19 action plan, ministers need to start learning lessons, says Royal Statistical Society
The charity Full Fact has said there is evidence health secretary Matt Hancock designed some targets retrospectively in a bid to show the government achieving Covid-19 related goals .Photo: Dan Kitwood/REUTERS/Alamy Stock Photo

By Jim Dunton

09 Mar 2021

Ministers need to conduct a full review of the way health statistics are compiled and fix the “fragmented and under-resourced system” exposed by the coronavirus pandemic, the Royal Statistical Society has said.

The professional body said that while statistics have been a crucial resource in the government's Covid-19 response, the experience of the past 12 months has highlighted the need to invest in “proper data infrastructure” that will allow the nation to cope better with future crises.

Numerous voices – among them former cabinet secretary Lord Mark Sedwill and former prime minister David Cameron – have acknowledged the need for a lessons-learned inquiry into the nation’s handling of the pandemic.

But the RSS said there are particular data issues that need focus. They include the lack of information on social-care users that became evident in the early weeks of the pandemic; the absence of an agile infectious-diseases surveillance system to track the early spread of Covid; and concerns about the statistical criteria for lateral flow tests. 

It said that as rapid testing represents a large component of the Covid safety plans for schools, work to set out statistical criteria for future tests to ensure their effectiveness is “a matter of urgency”.  

The RSS also expressed concerns about ministers “cherry picking” data to underscore their decisions rather than inform the public, echoing points made by Full Fact last month. 

Society president Prof Sylvia Richardson said the experience of the past 12 months has to drive change in government’s use of data.

“As often is the case in times of crisis, existing issues, both societal and structural have been brought to the fore,” she said.

“It’s now important that we learn lessons from the past year. So, we are better prepared for future pandemics, the government must look how to fully harness the power of statistics by improving our data infrastructure and surveillance systems.”

RSS chief executive Stian Westlake added: “Statistics have been crucial both to our understanding of the pandemic and to our efforts to fight it. 

“While we hope we won’t see another pandemic on this scale, we need to see a culture change now – with more transparency around data and evidence, stronger mechanisms to challenge the misuse of statistics, and leaders with statistical skills.”

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