• UK Statistics Authority writes to Matt Hancock
  • Watchdog “urges government to show more clearly how [testing] targets are being defined, measured and reported”
  • Letter follows HSJ revealing ministers used misleading numbers to claim victory on 100,000 test target

The UK Statistics Authority has raised fundamental concerns about the government’s reporting of covid-19 test numbers and called for greater transparency on how they present the data.

The watchdog’s intervention follows HSJ’s revelations that the government changed the way it counted the number of covid-19 tests in order to hit its target of 100,000 tests per day by the end of April.

UKSA Sir David Norgrove has today written to health secretary Matt Hancock to outline the concerns.

The letter said: “We urge government to update the covid-19 national testing strategy to show more clearly how targets are being defined, measured and reported.” 

Sir David acknowledges ministers were providing daily updates but he said the data published was of “limited detail about the nature and types of testing and it [was] 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.”

The letter follows the government consistently failing to hit the 100,000 testing target since Mr Hancock announced 122,000 tests had been carried out on 30 April.

However, HSJ revealed around 40,000 of the so-called completed tests were simply test kits which had been mailed to individuals and there was no way of knowing if they had been carried out.

Despite widespread criticism of how the government spun the figures, prime minister Boris Johnson last week vowed the government would achieve 200,000 tests by the end of May.

The letter continued: “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.

“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. 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. The way the daily tests data have been broken down by the different ‘pillars’ to illustrate the changing purposes of the programme is useful. Further breakdowns would provide more context, for example through showing the levels of testing by geographical area.”

The UKSA is an arm’s length body with a statutory objective to promote and safeguard the production and publication of official statistics. Its remit covers government statistics, the Office of National Statistics and the Office of Statistics Regulation.