Ed Humpherson response to Will Moy: COVID-19: test times response at PMQs 3 June 2020

Dear Will 

COVID-19: test times response at PMQs 3 June 2020 

Thank you very much for your letter of 14 July outlining your concerns with the availability of the data underpinning the Prime Minister’s response during Prime Minister’s Questions on 3 June. I am sorry it has taken so long to respond. This is because my team has investigated two distinct issues: what data were available to the public on 3 June; and what data were available internally with the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and Government. On the second of these issues, we have liaised with officials at DHSC to understand the source of the data and have received excerpts from the NHS Test and Trace unpublished management information included in the Prime Minister’s briefing material. 

 We have focused on Pillar 2, as this was the focus of the briefing material. We conclude that: 

  • At the time the statement was made (June 3) there were no statistics publicly available to support the statement. DHSC now publishes weekly NHS Test and Trace data, but this series of data only started to be published on 11 June and did not then include the times taken to return the test results. It was not until 2 July that the first data on the times taken to return test results were published. We support the publication of these turnaround times since they are of significant public interest. 
  • The data published on 2 July supports the first sentence of the Prime Minister’s response, which was that ‘We already turn around 90% of tests within 48 hours.’ This statement is consistent with the published data [1] for Regional Testing Sites and Mobile Testing Units. 
  • The rest of the Prime Minister’s response (‘The tests conducted at the 199 testing centres, as well as the mobile test centres, are all done within 24 hours’…) accords with the briefing he received, which was drawn from internal management information. That management information was not in the public domain at the time and is based on figures for the ‘day of test’ and receiving a result in the following 24 hours. A subsequent decision was made to publish statistics based on a strict definition of 24 hours and 48 hours, rather than directly publishing the management information, so the statement is not directly verifiable with reference to publicly available sources.  

As my office has made clear in past statements [2], when management information is used publicly and prominently to inform Parliament, the media and the public, it should be published in an accessible form, with appropriate explanations of context and sources. We have brought this to the attention of DHSC. 

I am copying this letter to William Wragg MP, Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee and Stephen Balchin, Head of Profession for Statistics at DHSC. 

 Yours sincerely 

 

 Ed Humpherson 

Director General for Regulation 

 

[1] Refer to Tables 3 and 4 of the NHS Test and Trace weekly bulletin https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/nhs-test-and-trace-statistics-england-16-july-to-22-july-2020

[2] https://osr.statisticsauthority.gov.uk/news/covid-19-production-and-use-of-management-information-by-government-and-other-official-bodies/

 

Related Links

Will Moy to Ed Humpherson: COVID-19: test times response at PMQs 3 June 2020

 

Will Moy to Ed Humpherson: COVID-19: test times response at PMQs 3 June 2020

Dear Ed,

We’re aware, following the UKSA’s recent correspondence with the Health Secretary, that the OSR is working with the Department for Health and Social Care on improving testing data. As you’ll be aware, Full Fact has been checking claims on testing from all sides throughout the pandemic, and we wanted to raise a specific set of concerns around inaccurate and unpublished data with you.

On 3 June, during Prime Minister’s Questions, the Prime Minister said in response to a question from the Chair of the DHSC Select Committee:

“We already turn around 90% of tests within 48 hours. The tests conducted at the 199 testing centres, as well as the mobile test centres, are all done within 24 hours, and I can undertake to him now to get all tests turned around in 24 hours by the end of June, except for difficulties with postal tests or insuperable problems like that.”

In relation to the first part of the claim -that 90% of tests are done within 48 hours – we’ve been unable to verify the figure because not all of the data is published.

On the second claim -that all tests at testing centres and mobile testing sites were done within 24 hours at the time of the claim -we now know that is incorrect.

At the time the data hadn’t been made available, but a DHSC spokesperson told us: “we’d point you back to what the PM said yesterday…tests done at regional test centres and mobile teams are already done in 24 hours.”

Data then published on 2 July showed that actually only a small proportion of tests were being done in this time frame. In the week to 3 June 19% of tests at regional sites and 5% of tests at mobile testing units were turned around within 24 hours.

When we put this new data to DHSC, it did not respond directly, merely sending over a list of background points, stating the government’s targets and current performance.

We are concerned about a lack of willingness from the government to engage on specific questions of accuracy. If the Prime Minister is not willing to correct the official record based on the government’s own data that has now been published, then the public needs a clear justification for what he did mean at the time.

This is not the only example of inaccurate, misleading or unpublished data on testing we have seen. Full Fact has written about the government’s unjustified claim to have hit its target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. New data published on 4 July shows that fewer than 100,000 tests were actually processed by a lab on 30 April, although many more were posted. We’ve also seen the Health Secretary attempt to clarify claims he made more recently about a 24 hour turnaround of certain testing to suggest ‘24 hours’ can be interpreted to include more than 24 hours.

We recognise the unique challenges faced by the government in the production of statistics at this time of crisis and that data will inevitably need to be revised and updated. But we believe that much more can be done to improve the presentation and communication of data, and there must be a willingness to correct inaccurate claims once they are identified, no matter who said them.

The current crisis is ongoing and we don’t know how long it will last. It has never been so important for the government to maintain its status as a trusted source of information: it will be critical to getting out of the crisis with as little harm to people’s health and livelihoods as possible.

Yours sincerely,

 

Will Moy

Chief Executive, Full Fact

 

Related Links

Ed Humpherson response to Will Moy: COVID-19: test times response at PMQs 3 June 2020