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.

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi recently said: “I am pleased to inform the House that we have now vaccinated almost nine in 10 over-80s in the UK, almost nine in 10 over-75s, and over half of people in their 70s.

The BBC News at 10 this evening had Fergus Walsh saying: “91% of those 80 have had their first dose, 95% of those aged 75 to 79 have had one”.

No data is published for the over-75s and over-70s. At this point you have to make a choice: is the government and the BBC making numbers up or do they exist but are not published. I go with the latter. If so, it remains a mystery as to why the NHS does not want to publish the numbers. But if they don’t, the rules are clear, the number should not be quoted.

The minister also said in the same interview: “”We’ve also visited every eligible care home possible with older residents in England and have offered vaccinations to all their residents and staff.” This is also a vague statement when detail could be given. Such vagueness threatens trust (and was discussed in my earlier blog).

This “plucking vaccination figures out the air” was the big January story and it continues into February. A week into January we learnt from Health Secretary Matt Hancock that “almost a quarter of residents had received a jab.” But no data was published. Last weekend Matt Hancock was quoted saying that “about 75% of care home residents have been vaccinated.” We learnt yesterday that “The Health Secretary will give an update (to parliament in the next few days) after ministers pledged to ‘offer’ a first dose to all elderly care home residents and their staff in England by January 31.” The care minister said on the BBC Today programme (1/2/21) that “over 90% of the over 80s”. None of these figures were from published statistics.

Sadly the Office for Statistics Regulation has been silent on this clear breach of its Code of Practice. I have written to the OSR asking them to assess the statements noted above, and allied practices and examples, against the code. The elements of the code that they will want to consider include those repeated in the annex at the end of this blog. It is especially important to note the expectation (in T3.8) that “ministerial statements referring to …. statistics should be issued separately from, and contain a prominent link to, the source statistics.” This is not happening.

The National Statistician has also offered guidance on how to treat what some departments will consider to be ‘management information’, not official statistics.

It sets out five key points (see below). The elements I have highlighted in bold seem to be ignored. At a Tortoise Media think-in this evening I was able to ask the minister when the data will be published. “Soon” was the answer. It’s not good enough.

  1. Unlock the value of data. Government statisticians should help organisations to unlock the power of data for policy, operational and managerial purposes. This includes facilitating the use of unpublished management information that will subsequently form the basis of official statistics.
  2. Use proportionate safeguards. Where unpublished management information feeds into official statistics, it should be handled with care. A range of safeguards can be used to reduce the risk of a breach of the Code of Practice. More stringent safeguards are required when data is very close to, or identical to, the final official statistics (see paragraph 5.3).
  3. Understand the difference between management information and official statistics. Decisions on whether data should be treated as official statistics should be taken in consultation with the Head of Profession for Statistics, and should take into consideration the principles set out in this document (see Box 2).
  4. Ensure equality of access. Public statements should not be made based on unpublished management information that feeds into official statistics. If this happens inadvertently, don’t try to cover it up – seek advice from the Head of Profession or from the UK Statistics Authority straight away (see paragraph 5.7). Selective release of favourable data must be avoided.
  5. Publish more data. Publishing data in an orderly way is one of the best ways to ensure equality of access and provide wider public value. The more data that is published routinely, the less likely it will be that your organisation will be compelled to make an unplanned release under the Freedom of Information Act.

Elements from the Code:

V2.1 Statistics producers must provide free and equal access to regular and ad hoc official statistics.

V2.2 Statistics, data and related guidance should be easily accessible to users. The needs of different types of users and potential users should be considered when determining ways of presenting and releasing the statistics and data.

T1.3 No action should be taken, nor public statement made, that might undermine confidence in the independence of the statistics when released.

T1.4 Statistics, data and explanatory material should be presented impartially and objectively.

T3.3 Access to statistics before their public release should be limited to those involved in the production of the statistics and the preparation of the release, and for quality assurance and operational purposes.

T3.4 The circulation of statistics in their final form ahead of their publication should be restricted to eligible recipients, in line with the rules and principles on pre-release access set out in legislation for the UK and devolved administrations. The details of those granted access should be recorded, together with clear justifications for access. No indication of the statistics should be made public and the statistics should not be given to any other party without prior permission for access. The list of recipients should be reviewed regularly and kept to a minimum.

T3.5 Statistics and data should be released on a timely basis and at intervals that meet the needs of users as far as practicable. The statistics should be released as soon as they are considered ready, under the guidance of the Chief Statistician/Head of Profession for Statistics.

T3.6 Statistics should be released to all users at 9.30am on a weekday.

T3.8 Policy, press or ministerial statements referring to regular or ad hoc official statistics should be issued separately from, and contain a prominent link to, the source statistics. The statements should meet basic professional standards of statistical presentation, including accuracy, clarity and impartiality. 

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