June 2, 2020 / 9:39 AM / 2 months ago

'Often mistrusted': stats watchdog criticises UK COVID-19 test data

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s statistics watchdog chided the government on Tuesday for publishing data on coronavirus tests that it said were often mistrusted and “far from complete and comprehensible”.

A year six pupil has his temperature checked by a member of staff at St John's Primary School as some children returned to the school as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown eases in Fulham, West London, Britain, June 2, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Coombs

“The aim seems to be to show the largest possible number of tests, even at the expense of understanding,” David Norgrove, the head of the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA), wrote in a letter to Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

Criticism from the independent UKSA is likely to add to questions surrounding the government’s handling of a pandemic that has killed almost 50,000 people in the United Kingdom, according to a Reuters tally of official data sources.

“I spoke to David Norgrove today... and we’ll be working with them to make sure that these statistics are constantly improved,” Hancock told reporters.

“But the way that we present (the data) is the simplest way of presenting a very complex picture.”

Concerns over the test data first came to light when the government set itself an ambitious target to carry out 100,000 tests per day by the end of April - a goal it said it met.

But in doing so, it included in its figures tests mailed out to people but not necessarily completed.

“This distinction is too often elided during the presentation at the daily press conference, where the relevant figure may misleadingly be described simply as the number of tests carried out,” Norgrove said.

Norgrove said the figures were unacceptable in their current form and that mistakes should not be repeated in data for the new test-and-trace system.

Hancock, in an earlier letter to Norgrove dated May 27, said he strongly supported transparent and high quality data.

In his response, Norgrove said he warmly welcomed Hancock’s support.

“But the testing statistics still fall well short of its expectations,” Norgrove said.

“It is not surprising that, given their inadequacy, data on testing are so widely criticised and often mistrusted.”

Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Stephen Addison

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