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Statisticians call for full review of health statistics after pandemic

Royal Statistical Society says pandemic has highlighted the need for investment in proper data infrastructure

The Royal Statistical Society has called for a full review of health statistics to address issues raised during the Covid-19 pandemic.

While data and statistics have been a crucial resource and central to the UK’s response to the crisis, the pandemic has highlighted the need for government to invest in proper data infrastructure, the learned society says.

It is now calling for a full review of UK health statistics to address the issues of a “fragmented and under-resourced system”, and says that social care data should be treated as an “essential part” of the review.

“Statistics have been crucial both to our understanding of the pandemic and to our efforts to fight it,” says RSS chief executive Stian Westlake.

“While we hope we won’t see another pandemic on this scale, we need to see a culture change now, with more transparency around data and evidence, stronger mechanisms to challenge the misuse of statistics, and leaders with statistical skills.”

‘Cherry-picked data’

According to the RSS, political communications have too often relied on “cherry-picked data to persuade the public that a particular decision is a right one, rather than prioritising informing the public”.

It recommends that the public are given the full information behind any policy announcements, as well as the full data sets so they can be analysed by independent experts.

Moreover, it says the lack of an agile infectious diseases surveillance system in the UK hampered the government’s abilities to track the spread of Covid-19 early on, with the Test and Trace system mainly focusing on operational goals, while the reporting of data relevant to characterise transmission has “largely been neglected”.

The RSS recommends that a real-time pandemic surveillance system be put in place to tackle future health emergencies.

“As is often the case in times of crisis, existing issues, both societal and structural, have been brought to the fore,” said RSS president and co-chair of the RSS Covid-19 taskforce, Sylvia Richardson.

“It’s important that we learn lessons from the past year. [To ensure] we are better prepared for future pandemics, the government must look at how to fully harness the power of statistics by improving our data infrastructure and surveillance systems.”