Full Fact raises concerns with regulator over inaccurate testing data

15 July 2020 | Cassie Staines

During a health pandemic, we all deserve information that is clear, open and transparent.

This week we wrote to the UK Statistics Authority about concerns over the way in which statistics about coronavirus testing in the UK are being presented and communicated to the public. 

The current crisis is ongoing and we don’t know how long it will last. It has never been so important for the government to maintain its status as a trusted source of information: it will be critical to getting out of the crisis with as little harm to people's health and livelihoods as possible.

In June, the Prime Minister used some inaccurate figures during Prime Minister’s Questions when asked about how quickly Covid tests were being turned around. He said that all tests at testing centres and mobile testing units at the time were turned around within 24 hours, when data published more recently shows that the number of tests turned around in that time was much smaller. When we asked the Department of Health about the figures, we were initially told they were correct. After we put the newly published data to them, they didn’t respond directly and sent us some background points.

Back in April, the government set itself a target of conducting 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month. We’ve written about the fact that this target was missed, but the government claimed it was achieved. New data published on 4 July shows that fewer than 100,000 tests were actually processed by a lab on 30 April, but the government also counted those that were posted. 

Neither of these instances have been corrected. 

In a letter to the Office for Statistics Regulation - part of the UK Statistics Authority whose role it is to support confidence in statistics, we asked them to look into the specific examples we had raised.

The Chair of the UK Statistics Authority Sir David Norgrove has previously written to the Health Secretary - in May and again in June - stating that testing statistics “still fall well short of its expectations” and that he was not surprised that “data on testing are so widely criticised and often mistrusted”. 

We understand that there are significant pressures on the government at this time, and that mistakes will be made when providing data. But we believe that much more can be done to improve the presentation and communication of data, and there must be a willingness to correct inaccurate claims once they are identified, no matter who said them. 

We are particularly concerned about a lack of willingness from the government to engage on specific questions of accuracy. If the Prime Minister is not willing to correct the official record based on the government’s own data that has now been published, then there needs to be a clear justification for what he did mean at the time. 

When we’ve had an answer to our letter, we’ll update you again. 

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