UK government must keep “invaluable” Covid-19 survey and expand it to other diseases, MPs hear
The UK government should keep funding the Covid-19 infections survey run by the Office for National Statistics and consider expanding it to track other infectious diseases too, MPs have heard.
A session of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee heard on 2 March that the survey “is worth its weight in gold” and that it has helped to track coronavirus and inform policy responses to the pandemic.
The comments came as the government is winding down its support for various Covid measures, including considering scaling down the survey, which many experts think would not be wise.
“The ONS community infections survey is worth its weight in gold in terms of understanding the epidemiology and putting us into a position of being able to respond quickly to a new variant,” said Graham Medley, chair of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M), which feeds into the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).
“If there are concerns about its cost effectiveness, then my temptation would be just to make it more effective, in terms of adding in, potentially, other viral infections, finding other things to do with it.
“But as a source of longitudinal data, of being able to go back to the same households and re-testing and re-asking those questions, it’s pretty much invaluable.”
The wider point of learning from improvements to Covid surveillance and data presentation to boost responses to other infectious diseases was backed by Sarah Scobie, deputy director of research at the Nuffield Trust, an independent health think tank.
She noted the “huge increase in accessibility” of public health data as a result of Covid, adding: “It would be great to see that translating through for surveillance of other diseases because a lot of that data isn’t very easy to get hold of.”
“It would be great for what’s happened with Covid to be carried forward, and to be built into how other public health and surveillance data gets published,” she said. “I think there’s some good lessons that we can take to really think about how we can improve our data going forward.”
This was echoed by Ed Humpherson, director general for regulation and head of the Office for Statistics Regulation, who underscored the importance of making public health data available and transparent not just to government but also to the public.
“That’s exactly the right lesson to learn from the pandemic—not just ‘data matters’ but ‘data matters to everyone’,” he said.
Elsewhere in the session, the committee grilled Medley on why it is that SPI-M and Sage do not tell policymakers which of the epidemic modelling results are most likely to take place.
Medley responded that the experts are unlikely to guess much better than the general public, given wide uncertainties on various inputs to models, and defended the approach in which the whole range of model results are presented to policymakers and left with them to integrate with other economic and social data in order to decide policy.
But Raghib Ali, senior clinical research associate at the MRC Epidemiology Unit of the University of Cambridge, said experts should provide their best estimates of what is likely to happen.
“As a decision maker, not being given any weight [to different model results] is not very helpful, particularly when the range is so wide—when you’re talking about 200 or 300 deaths to 6,000 deaths, 2,000 [hospital] admissions to 20,000 admissions,” he said.
Ali added that even without perfect information he was confident to give his opinion to politicians on what the most likely Omicron scenario was going to be, based on experience in previous waves and the latest data.
He also noted that Sage seems to be light on clinicians, which might have skewed its advice, especially on the severity of the Omicron variant.
“When I’ve looked at the Sage minutes… they are all doing their best with the evidence that’s available to them,” he said. “I think there is a problem that there’s maybe not enough clinicians on Sage, particularly in relation to Omicron, and maybe that’s why we weren’t as confident as we could have been on the decreased severity when that decision [not to lock down again] was made.”
A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight