Monica Lennon MSP to Sir David Norgrove: Scottish Government statistics in relation to COVID-19 testing

Dear Sir David,

Following your recent correspondence with the UK Government, I am writing to seek your guidance on Scottish Government statistics in relation to COVID-19 testing.

Proper and transparent use of statistics and data by governments is important at any time but especially during a national crisis. The Scottish Government have regularly stated that they believe that they publish more information and data on the COVID-19 situation that any other UK nation. You may be able to advise if this is the case. My immediate concern, however, is that there are serious issues with the data that is being made available, and the impact this is having on scrutiny.

On that basis, can you advise what assessment the UK Statistical Authority have made of the Scottish Government publications and other public bodies in Scotland?

In your letter to the UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care you noted both existing issues and suggestions for future publications. I believe a number of these also apply to Scottish data and would welcome your advice on what can be improved in the Scottish context as:

  • The connection between the number of people tested and the number of tests carried out is unclear. Although the publication delineates between the numbers tested through NHS Scotland labs and the UK test centres, there is no information on how many people have been tested through the latter route. Furthermore, it is not clear how many people from either route have been tested more than once, or how many tests results have been void or inconclusive.
  • The information available does not give a full picture of the epidemiology in Scotland. The number of positive cases is likely to be an underestimate as it does not include positive cases identified through UK test centres. The Scottish Government are also carrying out community surveillance programmes but data from these is not regularly published.
  • There is very limited information on the employment of people being tested. Key worker testing is only presented as a total figure, broken down by proportion for types of employment. This makes it more challenging to monitor increases in how many medical staff, care staff, police staff etc. have been tested. There is no detail on how many of these key workers have tested positive, despite regular requests for this information from opposition politicians.
  • Scrutiny of Scottish Government commitments is hampered by a lack of, or incorrect, statistics. More than three weeks after the Scottish Government commitment to regular testing for care homes, statistics on progress were first published on 10 June. However, within hours this had to be reissued due to errors. Information on nosocomial infections has been drip-fed from the Scottish Government who have then claimed that the data released cannot be used for scrutiny because it has not been validated. Finally, the Scottish Government have claimed that there is daily capacity in Scotland for 15,500 tests yet figures on capacity and the proportion used are not made public.
  • On 10 June, data on the Test and Protect system was published for the first time but was insufficient to assess the efficacy of the system. There is no information on the average number of contacts identified per each positive case, no detail on how many contacts have gone on to test positive, and no geographical breakdown. There is also no explanation as to why the number of cases is significantly higher than the corresponding positive test results reported during the same timeframe. Finally, there is no information on how long the contact tracing process takes per case.

Resolving the issues with the UK testing statistics may help address a small number of these issues. Nevertheless, I do consider there to be significant improvements that could be made to data also provided solely by the Scottish Government. I therefore ask that the UK Statistical Authority review these matters and suggest any changes that should be made.

Everyone involved in data collection and publication is working under extraordinary pressure and their efforts are appreciated. The good governance that the public expects relies on the publication of clear, accurate and timely data and robust scrutiny of that data. Public confidence in the Scottish Government’s Test and Protect system will only be achieved through clear and transparent reporting of data.

As you said in your previous letter, good evidence, trusted by the public, is essential to success in containing the virus and I would be grateful for your assessment of what improvements can be made by the Scottish Government and public bodies in Scotland to ensure that information on Covid-19 is transparent and trustworthy.

Yours sincerely,

Monica Lennon

Member of the Scottish Parliament for Central Scotland Region

Scottish Labour Shadow Cabinet Secretary for health and social care

 

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Sir David Norgrove response to Monica Lennon MSP: Scottish Government statistics in relation to COVID-19 testing

Sir David Norgrove response to Monica Lennon MSP: Scottish Government statistics in relation to COVID-19 testing

Dear Ms Lennon,

Thank you for your letter of 11 June about COVID-19 testing statistics published by the Scottish Government. You point to a number of areas for potential improvement to the published data, and the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) have discussed these with Public Health Scotland and the Scottish Government.

In April, OSR reviewed COVID-19 surveillance and registered deaths data across the UK, including information released by the Scottish Government and National Records of Scotland. OSR are in regular contact with producer bodies in Scotland, and a recent blog by our Director General for Regulation acknowledged the wide range of management information being published in Scotland. OSR welcomes the way these bodies are responding to its recommendations, as described for example in a recent Scottish Government blog about future data releases and improvements.

You also raised some particular points in relation to testing data in Scotland.

Testing data are collected through two pathways in Scotland: via NHS Labs (data collected by Health Protection Scotland) and Regional Testing Centres which form part of the expanded UK Government testing programme (data reported through the DHSC from contractors who operate the centres). I understand that data quality issues and timeliness of the data flows from these sites have hindered the release of the data so far by Public Health Scotland. However as of 15 June they are published on the Scottish Government website. I welcome this progress and would encourage further discussion with users and OSR, with a view to continued improvement.

You asked about care home data and Test and Protect figures.

  • On 10 June, Scottish Government published weekly data on COVID-19 in adult care homes in Scotland ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19): adult care homes – additional data’. These data were subsequently revised. I am satisfied that the revision was made and signposted appropriately in accordance with the Code of Practice for Statistics (T3.9).
  • On 10 June, Public Health Scotland published test and protect figures for the first time as part of their weekly COVID-19 report. We understand that the Test and Protect programme is in its infancy and the granularity of the data will be improved in the coming weeks. Scottish Government and Public Health should publish their plans to ensure the public are informed of any developments.

The Office for Statistics Regulation will continue to liaise with Scottish Government and Public Health Scotland as they seek to improve the quality and range of statistics available in Scotland.

Yours sincerely,

Sir David Norgrove

 

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Monica Lennon MSP to Sir David Norgrove: Scottish Government statistics in relation to COVID-19 testing

Response regarding Transport Scotland press release on Aberdeen bypass

Dear Mr Macdonald,

Thank you for your letter of 20 February about the use of figures in a recent press release by Transport Scotland concerning the new Aberdeen bypass. You were concerned that the data used in the press release were selectively chosen and not published in a secondary source. I share your concern about this selective use of unpublished data.

Transport Scotland is a producer of official statistics and as such should handle and use all statistics and data in line with the expectations set out in the Code of Practice for Statistics. We welcome Transport Scotland’s plan to publish an Initial Evaluation report in the coming weeks and recommend that Transport Scotland review its internal process for overseeing data used in press releases.

The Office for Statistics Regulation will continue to work with Transport Scotland to ensure that support is provided as it develops its practices and increases its awareness of the Code of Practice.

I am copying this letter to Andrew Paterson, lead statistician at Transport Scotland, and Roger Halliday, Chief Statistician in the Scottish Government.

Yours sincerely,

Sir David Norgrove

 

Related Links:

Transport Scotland press release on Aberdeen bypass (March 2020)

Pre-release access in Scotland

Dear Convener,

The UK Statistics Authority has watched with interest your Committee’s efforts to reduce pre-release access to official statistics in Scotland, following our discussions with your members in recent years.

As the Committee are aware, we believe Government Ministers and officials should not have access to statistics before they are made available to Parliament and the public. Equality of access to official statistics is a fundamental principle of statistical good practice, and the existence of pre-release access undermines trust in our official statistics system.

I am copying this letter to the Authority’s Director General for Regulation, Ed Humpherson, to the Chair of the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and to the Chair of the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee of the National Assembly for Wales.

Yours sincerely,

Sir David Norgrove