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Government statistics not trustworthy, says scientist


Rows of graves are prepared in Sixmile Cemetery in County Antrim (Niall Carson/PA)

Rows of graves are prepared in Sixmile Cemetery in County Antrim (Niall Carson/PA)


Rows of graves are prepared in Sixmile Cemetery in County Antrim (Niall Carson/PA)

The Government's method of giving out numbers on Covid-19 deaths and testing is "not the trustworthy communication of statistics", according to an expert.

Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, chairman of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at the University of Cambridge, criticised the government's daily briefings, saying that, while members of the public are hungry for "genuine information", they are being fed "number theatre".

In an interview with the BBC's Andrew Marr Show, Sir David said he wished data was being presented by people who know its "strengths and limitations" and could "treat the audience with respect".

The eminent statistician added that it is "extraordinary" that it is not known how many people have had Covid-19.

Coronavirus Data Graphs

In Northern Ireland, the Department of Health has been strongly criticised by the UK Statistics Authority over "gaps and losses" in the reporting of coronavirus figures.

The department has also been under growing pressure to release information about the true scale of the Covid-19 crisis in our care homes.

Asked about the government's communication to the public about coronavirus through its daily televised briefings, Sir David said he watched Saturday's, adding "frankly, I found it completely embarrassing".

"We get told lots of big numbers, precise numbers of tests being done - 96,878. Well, that's not how many were done yesterday; it includes tests posted out.

"We're told 31,587 people have died; no, they haven't, it's far more than that.

"I think this is actually not the trustworthy communication of statistics. It's such a missed opportunity. The public out there who are broadly very supportive of the measures, they're hungry for details, for facts, for genuine information, and yet they get fed this what I call 'number theatre', which seems to be co-ordinated really much more by a Number 10 communications team rather than genuinely trying to inform people about what's going on.

"I just wish the data was being brought together and presented by people who really knew its strengths and limitations and could treat the audience with some respect."

Sir David also raised concerns about a lack of information on how many people have had the virus.

He told the programme that some say the infection fatality rate - the proportion of people infected with the virus who go on to die - is around 1%.

Putting the number of deaths at around 35,000, if this is multiplied up, it would mean that around 3.5 million people have been infected.

But others put the infection fatality rate at a different percentage, with some saying the infection fatality rate is half of one percent, which would mean that seven million have been infected, while others claim half the country has been infected, he said.

Asked by Marr how scared we should be of Covid-19, Sir David said it is "very important that we are aware of what the risks are".

"I'm not saying how anybody should feel, or what they should be worried about, but my aim, as a statistician, was that people's anxiety should be at least roughly proportional to the actual risks that they face," he said.

As an example, Sir David said there are 10 million children under the age of 15 in England and Wales, and, up to April 24, there had been two deaths in this age group.

"This is the tiniest risk you could think of, so I do think that when people start talking about protecting our children, this is a bit of a delusion," he said.

"Obviously, I'm talking about risks to the individual themselves, we have to think about the potential for spreading the virus, and that's absolutely vital.

"But when we talk about personal risk, for young people, it's staggeringly low."

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