UK statistics regulator ‘disappointed’ at Government failure to publish data during pandemic

The UK statistics regulator has had to “step in” multiple times during the pandemic to alert Government departments to “transgressions” when ministers have quoted data that is not then quickly made available to the public.

The head of the Office for Statistics Regulation described such incidents as “disappointing” and said the principle of ensuring such data is published must be “more strongly embedded”.

Ed Humpherson, director general for regulation, said there has been a number of occasions on which he has had to intervene by contacting a department to tell them underlying data which is quoted by senior figures should be made available.

He told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee: “We still find occasions where rightly, a minister from any one of the four administrations, a minister will answer a question using information that they have available to them and that’s quite appropriate and right.

“Sometimes that information isn’t available publicly. And again that’s fine, if they know the answer to the question they should give the answer.

“But we see that that is not then followed up by their departments making the data available publicly, and you’ll know chair that we’ve stepped in on seven occasions because I always copy you in to the interventions.”

Committee chairman William Wragg thanked him for “highlighting various transgressions”.

Mr Humpherson (pictured) said it is mostly an issue of “awareness” that figures need to be published once quoted, and that they “haven’t had very many repeat offenders”.

He told the MPs that it should be “a matter of course” that the department makes the quoted information available, adding: “We will continue to intervene, but I’d much rather we didn’t have to.”

Giving an example, he said he had to contact the Department of Health and Social Care in England when a figure for the distance people were travelling to get a Covid-19 test was quoted “quite widely in the public domain, but the underlying data weren’t available”.

He also had to contact NHS Scotland and the Scottish Government when data on antibody testing had been quoted but was not available in the public domain.

In Northern Ireland he contacted health officials when the daily dashboard publication was suspended.

He said: “I wrote to the head of the Department of Health in Northern Ireland and said, you know, it’s not sufficient just to announce your numbers by Twitter, you need to put them out in a structured, orderly way.”

Also before the committee was Professor Sir Ian Diamond, national statistician for the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

He said while there is a “rocky road” ahead in the coming months there is “much better data” now on coronavirus “so the Government has the information on which to make early decisions”.

Sir Ian said: “My view, very strongly, is that we are about to enter a rocky road but we have much better information than we had for the first wave on which to plot a route.”

He said as well as its household infection survey, the ONS also has surveys running in communal establishments such as care homes and prisons and will soon have some for schools and universities.

He added that “it is not impossible that we will do airports and ports”.

Sir Ian was asked whether the increase in incident rate of coronavirus is nationwide and whether, therefore, measures are needed on a national basis.

He told the committee’s MPs: “One of the things that we are definitely seeing is that we, unlike some other European countries, do have a pandemic which is largely nationwide.”

He added: “My view is that at the moment we have a national – in England – largely national pandemic but one which is concentrated in urban areas.”

Asked about testing and tracing statistics which are published weekly, Mr Humpherson said they are “unquestionably more reliable, and they’ve improved out of all recognition”.

He added: “In fact, in some ways I now think that the test and trace information for England is more comprehensive than it is for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland.”

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