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End of Boris and co peddling dodgy data? Government to get statistics masterclasses before Christmas


Ministers will be given a ‘data masterclass’ in the coming weeks to address the issue of ‘statistical illiteracy’ within Government. 

The crash courses have already been running in the civil service but will now be given to senior ministers in the run up to Christmas. 

It is a direct response to criticisms by Britain’s statistics watchdog over the way Covid data has been presented during the pandemic.

The Office for Statistics Regulation argued that Covid statistics were ‘not always supported by transparent information provided in a timely manner.’ 

Testing data and Covid death numbers used to justify the second lockdown were two areas where the Government was scolded in the past.

It is not known who in Cabinet will be attending the masterclasses and if Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be among them. 

The country’s top statistician said the workshops have proven successful, but also acknowledged the problem won’t be fixed like ‘flicking a switch’. 

'Next slide please', the catchphrase of Professor Chris Whitty (pictured), was one of the key phrases heard during communication of pandemic at the Covid press briefings

‘Next slide please’, the catchphrase of Professor Chris Whitty (pictured), was one of the key phrases heard during communication of pandemic at the Covid press briefings

Sir Patrick Vallance, No10's Chief Scientific Adviser, suggested there could be a shocking 4,000 deaths per day by December 20 if nothing was done using a now-infamous graph. The scenario was based on the assumption that there would be 1,000 per day by the start of November. Real numbers of people dying were significantly lower

Sir Patrick Vallance, No10’s Chief Scientific Adviser, suggested there could be a shocking 4,000 deaths per day by December 20 if nothing was done using a now-infamous graph. The scenario was based on the assumption that there would be 1,000 per day by the start of November. Real numbers of people dying were significantly lower

The masterclasses were described by the UK’s National Statistician Professor Sir Ian Diamond while being questioned by MPs from The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee.

MP for Inverclyde Ronnie Cowan asked what was being done to help Government understand the data presented by statisticians.

How the government has been criticised for handling data in the pandemic

In November Britain’s statistics watchdog criticised Number 10 for not being transparent enough with the data used to justify England’s second lockdown

The UK Statistics Authority argued that numbers presented to the public have not always been backed up by ‘transparent information in a timely manner’.

In a statement, UKSA said that when data is used in public briefings, it should be made clear the source of the information and the full figures behind it.

The UKSA said that when modelling was referred to publicly – particularly to inform significant policy decisions – the ‘model outputs, methodologies and key assumptions’ should be published at the same time. 

It was not the first time the watchdog had scolded Government on its handling of data.

In June 2020, the UKSA chairman Sir David Norgrove wrote to the Health Secretary at the time, Matt Hancock, stating that the information on testing is ‘far from complete’ and ‘misleading’.

It came after Mr Hancock announced the UK had exceeded its target to increase coronavirus testing capacity to 200,000 a day by the end of May – without acknowledging that only 115,000 or so tests were actually being carried out per day. 

 ‘There’s little or no point in organisations like your own producing accurate and timely information and statistics if its not going to be understood by the people it is presented to,’ the SNP MP said.

‘The ONS data and science campus, in partnership with 10 Downing Street, have produced a data masterclass. How far does this masterclass go in addressing the statistical illiteracy across the UK Government?’

Responding, Sir Ian said they had proved very popular since they launched in 2020 and were being expanded. 

‘Many people across Government, across the civil service, ambassadors, senior civil servants, permanent secretaries have commented that they’ve enjoyed it, that they have found it very useful, informative,’ he said.

‘We are now in the process of rolling it out to a wider range of the civil service particularly through the campus for civil service training.’

Sir Ian also detailed that he ministers will be getting an abridged version of the class in the coming weeks. 

‘I’m hoping in the next few weeks to do some short presentations for ministers which will come from the masterclass,’ he said.

However, in answering Mr Cowan’s question on ‘statistical illiteracy’ the UK’s top statistician acknowledged that there was no quick fix. 

‘It has been a very good initiative and we are very proud of it,’ he said. 

‘But I’m not going to pretend you can do one masterclass, flick a switch, and suddenly everything is perfect.’  

The Government’s poor handling of data has been highlighted and criticised a number of times over the course of the pandemic by Britain’s data watchdog, The UK Statistics Authority (UKSA). 

UKSA scolded the Government for failing to be transparent with the data used to justify the second national lockdown last winter, with the potential to ‘confuse the public and undermine confidence’. 

This data, included a now infamous chart presented by No 10’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, suggesting there could be a shocking 4,000 deaths per day by December 20 if nothing was done. 

But the figures came from an outdated model based on a projection that there would be 1,000 deaths per day by the start of November. 

In reality the daily average was lower than 200, meaning the prediction was five times too high.

And former Health Secretary Matt Hancock was slammed by the body for misleading the public on Covid tests in the height of the pandemic’s first wave in last year. 

While the need for data masterclasses was highlighted officials being interviewed by the MPs were overall positive regarding how government had handled data over the course of the pandemic. 

Their main criticism was ministers quoting data that had not been publicly released, something officials said shouldn’t happen in the interests of transparency. 

UKSA outgoing chairman Sir David Norgrove said ministers and other officials usually handle statistics well and mishandling of data was usually down to clumsiness rather than ill intent. 

‘By and large I think people in the British Government do use statistics pretty well,’ he said.

‘Mostly my experience is that when statistics are misstated it’s usually cockup not conspiracy.’ 



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