Mark Pont to Clare Griffiths: Statistics on Cancer Survival in England

Dear Clare

Statistics on Cancer Survival in England

As you are aware, we recently completed our compliance check of Public Health England’s (PHE) statistics on Cancer Survival in England against the Code of Practice for Statistics. The COVID-19 pandemic led to the cessation of much non-urgent NHS treatment and care, which could have consequences for the survival of people with cancer. This means that these statistics will likely form a key role in examining the wider impact of the pandemic on the population. Following constructive conversations with John Broggio, the lead statistician for these statistics, I am pleased to confirm that these statistics should continue to be designated as National Statistics.

We found positives in the way that PHE produces and presents these statistics, which enhance their value and quality. For example,

  • PHE has streamlined separate geographical, adult and child survival statistics into one output which makes the information more coherent and presents some of the data in interactive graphs.
  • PHE is developing data on the survival of rarer cancers and planning to provide more granularity about cancers covering multiple areas of the body.
  • PHE plans to review the feasibility of linking data on income and deprivation to the cancer survival data, analyse and publish its findings.
  • The datasets present confidence intervals at the 95% level, to allow users to take into account uncertainty of the estimates provided in their use.

Our review also identified several ways in which we consider that the trustworthiness and value of these statistics could be further enhanced:

  • The methodology, references and related publications are all linked in the data tables and report, but these were first published by the previous producer (the Office for National Statistics) in 2019. To improve transparency and ensure that the documentation reflects the latest position, PHE should review and publish the methods and quality assurance documentation under its own name.
  • The statistical report discusses the main limitations and cautions against making comparisons across years, but the content generally is aimed at the expert data user, with little commentary and insight provided for those with less knowledge of the complexities of cancer survival. It is good that PHE plans to publish a summary in simpler language alongside the report and should work with less-expert users to develop the narrative to provide and enhance the insights offered to them.
  • PHE usually obtains a wide range of user views on its cancer statistics during its annual Cancer Data Conference. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, this was cancelled for 2020. To supplement the stakeholder information currently available, PHE should consider engaging in some structured virtual stakeholder engagement exercises in lieu of the conference and use the feedback to develop the outputs further.

Thank you to you and your team for your positive engagement during this review. Our Health and Social Care team will continue to engage with PHE on progress in the coming months.

Please do not hesitate to get in touch if you would like to discuss any aspects of this letter further. I am copying this letter to John Broggio, Lead Statistician.

Yours sincerely

Mark Pont

Assessment Programme Lead


Related Links

Statistics on Cancer Survival in England

Ed Humpherson to Michael Brodie: Official Statistics: National flu and COVID-19 surveillance reports

Dear Mr Brodie

Official Statistics: National flu and COVID-19 surveillance reports

I am writing about delays to the release of statistics published by Public Health England (PHE). Most recently, on 8 October the National flu and COVID-19 surveillance reports, which are classified as official statistics, were delayed from 2pm until 5pm.

PHE make use of and publish a wealth of data supporting the core activities of government, informing decisions and tracking outcomes. Your coronavirus dashboard is a key source of information for many people, getting millions of hits each week, and the information you publish in your surveillance report supports the public in understanding decisions around local lockdowns. It is an impressive achievement for a small team to produce these figures in such a timely way and we appreciate the effort that has been put into making the data available so widely.

The importance of what you publish is unquestionable and it is essential that the public have confidence in it. The Code of Practice for Statistics supports public confidence in statistics by setting out clear commitments for official statistics producers.

Meeting the expectations of the Code helps you as an organisation demonstrate trustworthiness which in turns supports confidence in you and the data you publish. For example, it supports transparency and equality of access, and highlights the importance of independent decision making. To support this, we were pleased that you pre-announced the decision to combine the flu and COVID-19 surveillance reports.

However, some of your recent publications have been delayed, including the National flu and COVID-19 surveillance official statistics publication on 8 October. While there are times when a publication may need to be delayed, for example, to address quality concerns with the data being published, it is important that these delays are clearly communicated and decisions are informed by the Head of Profession for Statistics. We would expect the Head of Profession for Statistics to engage experts in PHE (and more widely), and if necessary consult the National Statistician. The Code sets out expectations around decision making and the role of the Head of Profession:

  • Changes to pre-announced release dates or times should be agreed by the Chief Statistician/Head of Profession for Statistics. Any changes should be announced promptly, explaining the reasons for the change. (T3.2).
  • The Head of Profession for Statistics should have sole authority for deciding on methods, standards and procedures, and on the content and timing of the release of regular and ad hoc official statistics. (T2.1)
  • The Head of Profession for Statistics should actively advocate the application of the Code pillars of Trustworthiness, Quality and Value to all those involved in producing, publishing and using statistics and data in the organisation. (T2.2)
  • As the principal adviser and accountable officer on statistical matters within the organisation, the views of the Head of Profession for Statistics should be considered in all matters relating to statistics and data. (T2.3)
  • The Head of Profession for Statistics should report immediately any concerns regarding professional independence and accidental or wrongful release of statistics to the National Statistician (T2.7) and should report any concerns about continuing to meet the principles of the Code to me as Director General for Regulation (T2.8).

I would be happy to meet to discuss the value of official statistics and the Code of Practice if you would find it helpful.

I am copying this letter to Sir Ian Diamond, the National Statistician and Clare Griffiths, PHE Head of Profession for Statistics.

Yours sincerely


Ed Humpherson

Director General for Regulation

Ed Humpherson to Duncan Selbie, Public Health England: Sero-surveillance data

Dear Duncan 


I am writing to welcome the publication of sero-surveillance data by Public Health England.

The background is that at the daily media briefing on 21 May, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care quoted unsourced figures for the percentage of people in London and nationally with COVID-19 antibodies. My team approached Public Health England on 22 May and your colleagues confirmed that these figures came from unpublished data from the PHE Surveillance Cell.

Following our approach, Public Health England published the data on 22 May.

Our expectation, set out in our public statement of 18 May, is that where unpublished data are used by Ministers in significant public statements, they should promptly be made available to all. Public Health England’s publication of these data is in line with this principle and supports equality of access to data used in public debate. It is particularly good that you published the data so quickly after our approach.

I am copying this letter to William Wragg MP, Chair of the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee.

Yours sincerely

Ed Humpherson

Director General for Regulation

Assessment of Statistics on Cancer Survival in England

Dear Iain


Thank you for inviting us to assess ONS’s experimental cancer survival statistics (adult cancer survival by stage of diagnosis and cancer survival for children) against the Code of Practice for Statistics. We have completed the first phase of the assessment and have today published our Assessment Report.

I am pleased that ONS and PHE are collaborating on the publication of cancer survival statistics and that, following user consultation, you have elected to test and release these statistics as experimental statistics to encourage the involvement of users in their development. There is evidence that the statistics do meet a niche user need. However, by providing more insightful commentary, these statistics could also be used to support a wider public understanding of cancer survival more generally. ONS should now work more closely with PHE and other experts to provide a comprehensive and coherent narrative covering the suite of official cancer statistics.

Since your notification[1] of the problems encountered producing adult cancer survival statistics, in June 2018, both ONS and PHE have learned lessons and strengthened the team to ensure the sustained production of these important statistics. Alongside the revised back series of statistics, ONS published a comprehensive explanation for the delay to the publication of the statistics and took the opportunity to detail methodological improvements. Additionally, ONS updated readers about the involvement of peer review in the production of the life tables and survival estimates, enhancements that indicate lessons have been learned from the data processing problems identified in 2018.

The Assessment Report contains nine requirements for improvement. Once ONS has worked with PHE to address these, we will recommend to the Authority that the experimental statistics about children’s and adult cancer survival should be designated as National Statistics. This will demonstrate that the statistics meet the highest standards of trustworthiness, quality and public value and comply with the Code of Practice for Statistics. You are due to report back to us by 31 May 2019 outlining how you have addressed the requirements.

I am copying this letter to Clare Griffiths, Head of Profession for Statistics at Public Health England and Ben Humberstone, Head of Health Analysis and Life Events at ONS.

Yours sincerely

Ed Humpherson
Director General for Regulation



Related Links:

Assessment Report 341 – Cancer Survival in England