Stats regulator urges ministers and officials to implement Covid lessons

Pandemic sparked “unprecedented public engagement" with health data but highlighted challenges, OSR says
Photo: David Schwarzenberg via Pixabay

The UK’s statistics regulator has implored top officials to help increase transparency around the use of stats, address data gaps and promote a “culture which values good use of data and independent statistical input”, after identifying lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic.

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, according to the Office for Statistics Regulation’s review of health and social care statistics during the pandemic.

Among other things, the review drew attention to gaps in available data, which the OSR said has often "resulted in accusations that governments cherry pick or manipulate data"; infrastructure flaws; and limited transparency, which can damage public trust in stats and government decisions.

But it also found senior leaders in government can provide “valuable support for statisticians” by promoting a culture that values good use of data and independent statistical input.

This is one of 10 lessons arising from the review, which the OSR has called upon ministers, civil servants and producers of health and care stats to help implement.

Other lessons include that producers of stats must be able to act transparently and use their “unique ability to act independently from the political process” to demonstrate trustworthiness; and that stats producers must be proactive in filling data gaps.

The review also called on government to prioritise sharing and linking data, which it said could have life-saving impacts, and said it should provide flexible and joined-up data infrastructure, to enable quicker responses to new data needs.

And it highlighted the importance of presentation, noting that the public values stats that are communicated clearly.

UK Statistics Authority chair Sir David Norgrove has written to key ministers and officials stressing the importance of learning these lessons.

"The Covid-19 pandemic resulted in a huge public appetite for data and statistics. You should be proud of the remarkable efforts of analysts in your organisations to meet this demand, overcoming challenges which would previously have seemed insurmountable," he said in a letter to Department of Health and Social Care permanent secretary Sir Chris Wormold.

The letter, which was also sent to NHS Digital head Simon Bolton, NHS England chief Amanda Pritchard, UK Health Security Agency chief Jenny Harries and national statistician Sir Ian Diamond, noted that in England, the number of organisations responsible for the production and publication of health data and statistics has created “additional complexity”.

He said strong leadership and collaboration would help in identifying shared prorities and coordinating publication plans.

"As senior leaders your support for the work of analysts in your organisation and across the health system will be vital in achieving this," he added.

In a letter to health secretary Sajid Javid, Norgrove also stressed that when statistics and data are quoted publicly by ministers or senior officials, they should be published in an accessible form with appropriate explanations of context, limitations, and sources.

“I am sure you would agree that the health system needs both to learn lessons and to build on its achievements in this area,” he added.

Meanwhile in Northern Ireland,  there have been times when data, including on vaccinations, has "not met expectations around accessibility or transparency", Norgrove told its health minister Robin Swann.

Cementing statistical successes

The review provides an opportunity to “cement the many statistical successes of the pandemic”, Norgrove said in a statement about the report. The OSR’s recommendations should “help senior leaders in government and the health and care sector to work together more effectively, using statistics to serve the public good”, he said.

“By promoting a collaborative and transparent approach to data, and the independence of statisticians, we can both maintain public trust in statistics and improve public confidence in the decisions that affect us all. Covid-19 showed the need for a more coherent picture of the health of our citizens and the healthcare services they have access to,” Norgrove added.

“Plugging the gaps in our knowledge can only be achieved through commitment to data sharing between the many bodies responsible, and their investment in analytical resources.”

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