Sex in official statistics – the regulator’s review

The categorisation of “sex” in statistics used to be a non-issue but in recent years it has become highly charged and very confused. The UK statistics regulator, OSR, has launched a timely consultation on the issue. As it stands, the definitions used by the government machine – and others – are a real mishmash with the result that we have potentially very misleading statistics. This was shown last week when the Fair Play for Women crowdfunded legal case, to seek clarity about what “sex” meant in the Census 2021, was heard. Thankfully, the pathway for OSR to be clear and robust about sex is much simpler following the court case: the High Court stated (see pdf at the end of this blog) that “What is your sex” means sex “as recorded on a birth certificate or Gender Recognition Certificate”. The statisticians must now fall in line. The OSR must now step up and do its job to ensure that they do: users will expect that statistics that are not compiled in line with law should not be classified as National Statistics. It is essential that rules are set and adhered to or more and more statistics will become meaningless. The OSR’s draft guidance needs to be substantially strengthened.

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“Giving a voice” – an unfortunate confession from ONS

The Office for National Statistics does surveys “because it gives people the chance to have a voice”. Oh no it isn’t, it’s about collecting and publishing statistics about the nation. This was just one noteworthy comment in a weird interview with the National Statistician yesterday. That said, the “giving a voice” comment might help to explain why there’s been a mess up with the sex question in the Census, where a judge stepped in last week to get the ONS to correct its ways. Diamond also got into forecasting a third wave of Covid-19 in the autumn: I really think that “statistics” and the ONS should be about the past, not forecasts (especially since the ONS does not do epidemiological models). The National Statistician might also have quoted data* that’s not in the public domain – breaking his own code of practice! And all before breakfast on a Sunday!

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Vaccine alert – no numbers!

The government and its advisers are throwing vaccination numbers around on a daily basis. We want to believe them because the numbers are big and it points to good news. Sadly, so often the numbers are not published. I have written to the statistics regular to point this out and demand that such critical, important statements only quote published data. It is time for the NHS to do this – as a matter of urgency.

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Invisible Covid-19 vaccine data

No data has been published about the number of vaccinations given to care home residents in England or the UK. Yet we wake this morning to headlines that the NHS is saying “all eligible, older residents at more than 10,000 care homes have been offered the vaccine.” According to the same article (FT, £) “NHS England said figures set to be published on Monday were expected to show ……” The same story is now on the BBC website. This is not to deny that the very clear majority of residents have been vaccinated (and that the speed of roll out more generally is impressive) but as no data has been published to date to support the care home vaccine claims, people have been given very little reason to trust the next statement. It’s so sad when the data could be there if the NHS could be bothered, or be willing, to share it.

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Care homes: no data = no knowledge

How care home residents and staff have been tested for Covid-19? We don’t know. How many have received the vaccination in recent weeks? We don’t know. How many have died of Covid-19? We don’t know. Spot the pattern? When it comes to care homes, it’s a matter of no data equals no knowledge.

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Regulator fails to seek minimum standards on GDP

The debate about the accuracy and comparability of the GDP numbers being produced under Covid-19 rumbles on. I was pleased therefore to get a response from OSR to my email. Sadly my questions (listed in the annex at the end of this blog) were mostly not answered and the OSR sees little worthy of mention. The regulator is doing too little too late and does not seem to have given enough attention to a good many lines in the code of practice (set out below). Statisticians producing GDP data are not: including a clear approach to quality management, being open about areas of improvement, giving clarity about data inputs and the impact of any changes, being transparent about the impact of data changes on statistics, providing advance notice about changes to methods, releasing new data as experimental statistics, providing any validation of data with other sources. OSR needs to look closely in particular at section Q3 of the code about quality assurance as ONS is not being sufficiently transparent, or giving guidance about use, notably in respect to the strengths and limitations, reliability, consistency and comparability of GDP data.

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UK’s population estimates are “shockingly bad”

The country’s population estimates are latest statistical victim of Covid-19 as they are exposed as “shockingly bad”. A report in the last week has suggested that the latest ONS estimates have failed to spot the loss of over a million foreign born residents who left as a result of the pandemic. Sometimes the published numbers are so off beam, and so obviously implausible, one wonders why they get published. It’s a classic example of a phenomenon well known among data watchers: that the ONS cares more about production cycles and processes than what the numbers show. There is no “sense check” mechanism and it is a mystery as to why UKSA/OSR lets this carry on. It’s as if the regulator only responds when the producers own up to a mistake or an influential user demands change.

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Major failure on vaccination data

The NHS published the long-awaited regional data table of vaccinations today and it fell short on all fronts. I have written to the statistics regulator (OSR) to seek an explanation as to why this effort was so poor. It looks as if one of three factors is coming into play: the government does not want to be open and transparent, does not want anyone to know what is happening (perhaps it is embarrassed about the slow and uneven roll out), or the data systems are so shambolic that nothing better can be produced. Whatever the excuse, the public deserves better from such a critical £3bn programme.

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Vaccines – what data do we need?

Why has so little data on vaccine roll out been published? It’s over five weeks since that first jab and still we have only the most basic running total. Three reasons spring to mind: the government does not want to be open and publish the data, a full dataset would show terrible weaknesses, or the systems are so chaotic that they can’t collate the numbers. Which is it? This blog sets out 15 data tables that could be published, in advance of more/better data being due tomorrow.

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