Public trust in official stats up, despite concern over political interference in Covid figures

79% surveyed said Covid stats were accurate, but only half said they were free from political meddling
Photo: David Schwarzenberg via Pixabay

By Tevye Markson

27 Apr 2022

The UK’s national statistician has credited figures released during the pandemic with helping to boost confidence in national statistics – but also reveals the public do not trust politicians not to meddle with Covid stats.

Sir Ian Diamond said it was “encouraging” that 89% of people who responded to a nationwide survey said they trusted the Office for National Statistics and 87% trusted its stats – up from 88% and 85% respectively.

“We have worked hard to provide fundamental insights throughout the pandemic. It’s a great reward to see people engaging with statistics more than ever, and for ONS to emerge as one of the UK’s most trusted institutions. Nine in 10 people trust the statistics we produce; similar majorities believe our statistics are useful and that we will keep their data safe,” Diamond, who leads the ONS, said.

But the high levels of engagement with Covid stats confirmed by the Public Confidence in Official Statistics were tempered by some concern over their impartiality.

Only 53% of the survey’s 3,398 respondents agreed that Covid statistical releases were free from political interference. However, 79% said they were accurate, and 92% said they were useful.

The survey findings echoed the conclusions of an office for Statistics Regulation review published in October, which said the coronavirus crisis sparked “unprecedented public engagement with health and social care data”, but also highlighted existing problems with that data and created new challenges.

The review set out ten lessons, including that producers of stats must be able to use their “unique ability to act independently from the political process”.

Commissioned by the UK Statistics Authority, the results are based on the National Centre for Social Research’s web-postal survey of adults aged 18 in 2021.

The survey also found that the percentage of people who have heard of the ONS has increased from 70% to 75% in the last four years, whilst the number of people who said they had used ONS statistics increased from 24% to 36%.

Stian Westlake, chief executive of the Royal Statistical Society, added: “It’s encouraging to see that trust in the ONS and the statistics it produces remains high. 

“Good quality statistics, free from political interference are essential for a healthy democracy and statisticians across government are to be applauded for their tireless work over the last two years in providing us with the data needed to tackle the pandemic.”

Most people also said they trust the ONS with their own data. 90% of people agreed that personal information provided to ONS would be kept confidential. People who had taken part in surveys were more likely to agree with this (92%) compared with those who had not (87%).

Diamond said the results were welcome ahead of the publication of the ONS census – its biggest to date – later this year.

“We’re proud that people support our vision of statistics that serve the public good which we will continue to deliver with honesty, and free from political interference,” he said.

Awareness of other organisations

The NatCen research also found more people are aware of the UK Statistics Authority (48%) than in 2018 (33%).

For the first time, people were also asked about the Office for Statistics Regulation, with 96% saying the body is important because of its role in speaking out against misuse of statistics and 94% saying it is important to have a body that ensures official stats are produced without political interference. Additionally, 41% said they had heard of the OSR.

The aim of the NatCen survey, which was also conducted in 2009, 2014, 2016 and 2018, is to explore trust in official statistics in Britain including how these statistics are produced and used. 

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