Statistics watchdog challenges government over coronavirus testing numbers

PUBLISHED: 12:18 12 May 2020 | UPDATED: 12:18 12 May 2020

Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Witty, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance during a media briefing in Downing Street. Photograph: Pippa Fowles/10 Downing Street/Crown Copyright/PA Wire.

Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Witty, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance during a media briefing in Downing Street. Photograph: Pippa Fowles/10 Downing Street/Crown Copyright/PA Wire.

The UK’s statistics watchdog has criticised the “limited detail” in the government’s coronavirus testing figures.

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UK Statistics Authority chairman Sir David Norgrove told health secretary Matt Hancock that the “trustworthiness” of official figures would be helped if they were more straightforward to find and better explained.

Boris Johnson has set a goal of having the capacity to carry out 200,000 tests a day by the end of May.

This follows a target of 100,000 a day for the end of April set by Hancock - but that was based on tests being carried out, rather than capacity.

Sir David told Hancock: “I know you are a strong supporter of the proper use of statistics and data and that you will understand that for the sake of clarity and confidence it is important that the target and its context should be set out.


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“It should be clear whether the target is intended to reflect: testing capacity; tests that have been administered; test results received; or the number of people tested.

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“Each of these is of interest of course, whether or not they are targets.

“In reporting against this target, sole focus on the total national number of tests could mask helpful operational detail.”

He called for more information on testing in different parts of the country, the overall capacity, the number of people tested, how many tests had been administered and the results that had been received.

He said that data on the gov.uk website and presented at the daily Downing Street briefings gave “limited detail about the nature and types of testing and it is hard to navigate to the best source of information”.

“It would support trustworthiness for the testing data to be more straightforward to find, with detailed breakdowns and richer commentary,” he said.

He called on ministers to update the national testing strategy “to show more clearly how targets are being defined, measured and reported”.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “We successfully hit our target to deliver 100,000 tests a day by the end of April and are committed to increasing our capacity to 200,000 a day across our whole testing programme so we can give tests to even more people that need one.

“The government has been open and transparent in the way we are presenting data about coronavirus, including testing statistics.”

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