Fixes, Fiddles and Daily Figures

Did UK government ministers ‘downplay’ the COVID-19 peak?

The Guardian reports there were “nearly 1,500 deaths in one day”. This figure is higher than the daily COVID-19 measure. Sir David King said it was “an attempt to play down the adversity that the country was faced with”.

The front page article led to claims of ‘fixing’ and ‘fiddling’ the daily COVID-19 figures. This article examines these claims.

Differences in measures

The Guardian looks at differences in COVID-19 death measures. The “actual death toll”, here, comes from the three statistical offices:

On 9 April the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, standing in for the hospitalised prime minister, said the death toll had increased by 881 on the previous day. The actual death toll was 64% higher than that.

Note that the graph ends on 28th April. (Image: Guardian)

We can look at their definitions in detail:

  • DHSC: Before 29th April, confirmed deaths with COVID-19 in hospitals in England. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, confirmed deaths in all settings. Public Health Wales requires clinical suspicion COVID-19 was causative factor. PHW covers confirmed deaths in hospitals or care homes. After 29th April, the England measure was: confirmed deaths in all places. The measure counts deaths by date of report, not date of death.
  • ONS/NRS/NISRA: counts of death certificates where COVID-19 is mentioned. That mention does not need a positive test result. It only needs clinical suspicion. Statistics offices report these deaths by registration date and by date of occurrence. It takes time to certify deaths.

Both the DHSC and ONS measure associated deaths: deaths with the disease. This is different to deaths from COVID-19.

There are several key differences between the two measures:

  • Date of report: The DHSC count is adding confirmed deaths in the last 24-hour reporting period. Those deaths were not in the last 24 hours.
  • Coverage: Before 29th April, confirmed deaths in England referred only to hospital deaths. The data source was NHS England. Public Health Wales reports on deaths in hospitals and care homes.
  • Suspected deaths: The ONS measure is for death certificate mentions. These deaths do not need to be lab-confirmed. A doctor can suspect the deceased person had COVID-19.

Consider 8th April — now recognised as the peak of COVID-19 deaths in the UK. With reporting lags, it is likely the reported number would be less the deaths by date of occurrence. The major difference was coverage: lab-confirmed deaths in England were only in hospital.

Was this limitation explained?

Yes. There was a joint statement between the DHSC and ONS, published on 31st March. The Guardian article omits this published statement.

Also, registrations can take a long time. What the article calls “actual death toll” is a provisional certificate count by date of death. The statistics offices may further revise those figures.

People accuse the government of ‘fiddling’ the figures, citing the Guardian article. (Image: Facebook)

What did the daily press conferences show?

Sir David King is the former Chief Scientific Adviser. Prof King leads the ‘Independent SAGE’ group. He is the lone critic:

They didn’t say we have to add on all these other numbers which would have been a more honest thing to say. They were saying things were more rosy than they actually were.

The crux of this criticism rests on what the daily press conferences showed. The UK government has a page showing all the slides from the Coronavirus press conferences. This timeline highlights major changes:

The top-right graph shows difference between the two measures. (Image: GOV.UK)

The daily press conference slides underwent a large number of changes. Slides after 16th April show UK death certificate counts. This is inconsistent with Prof King’s claim that ministers sought to “play down” the number of deaths.

Number Theatre

This does not mean these press conferences did a good job of explaining the figures. As a different Sir David said, it was often “number theatre”.

Prof Sir David Spiegelhalter (Cambridge) highlights strengths and limitations could be better explained. What the numbers represent matters. This is particularly true for COVID-19 test statistics. The UK government figure conflates tests carried out with test posted out.

The DHSC and ONS measures represent different things.

Before 29th April, the DHSC measure excluded non-hospital deaths in England. The Department updated its measure. It counts deaths with a lab-confirmation of SARS-CoV-2. The figures are by reporting date, not when the death occurred.

The ONS measure is of death certificates which mention COVID-19. There does not need to a lab confirmation: there only needs to be clinical suspicion. Some doctors may not give correct diagnoses. It is important to look at all-cause mortality too.

Each measure has different strengths and limitations.

This blog looks at the use of statistics in Britain and beyond. It is written by RSS Statistical Ambassador and Chartered Statistician @anthonybmasters.

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