Ministers are being given crash courses in statistics to address ‘data illiteracy’ within Government after series of scoldings from watchdog over way Covid data was presented to public

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  • Classes addressing ‘statistical illiteracy’ among officers to be held within week
  • The government has been criticized for misrepresenting data during covid
  • But the head of Britain’s statistics authority told lawmakers it was a case of ‘conspiracy, not conspiracy’.

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Ministers will be given a ‘data masterclass’ in the coming weeks to address the issue of ‘statistical illiteracy’ within the government.

Crash courses in civil services are already underway, but will now be given to senior ministers by Christmas.

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It is a direct response to criticism by Britain’s statistics watchdog over the way Covid data has been presented during the pandemic.

The Office for Statistics Regulation argued that Covid statistics ‘are not always supported by transparent information provided in a timely manner.’

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Testing data and the number of Covid deaths used to justify the second lockdown were two areas where the government has been scolded in the past.

It is not known who in the cabinet will attend the masterclass and whether Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be among them.

The country’s top statistician said the workshops had proved successful, but also acknowledged that the problem would not be fixed like ‘flicking a switch’.

‘Next slide please’, the catchphrase from Professor Chris Whitty (pictured), was one of the key phrases heard during the communication of the pandemic at a Covid press briefing.

Number 10's chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, suggested there could be a shocking 4,000 deaths per day by 20 December if nothing is done using the now infamous graph.  The scenario was based on the assumption that there would be 1,000 per day by early November.  the actual death toll was much lower

Number 10’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, suggested there could be a shocking 4,000 deaths per day by 20 December if nothing is done using the now infamous graph. The scenario was based on the assumption that there would be 1,000 per day by early November. the actual death toll was much lower

The masterclass was described by Professor Sir Ian Diamond, a UK national statistician, during questioning by parliamentarians from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee.

Inverclyde MP Ronnie Cowan asked what was being done to help the government understand the data presented by statisticians.

How the government has been criticized for handling data in a pandemic

In November the UK statistics watchdog criticized Number 10 for not being transparent enough with the data used to justify England’s second lockdown.

The UK Statistics Authority argued that numbers presented to the public are not always supported by ‘transparent information in a timely manner’.

UKSA said in a statement that when data is used in public briefings, it should be made clear to the source of the information and the full data behind it.

The UKSA stated that when modeling was publicly referenced – particularly to inform important policy decisions – ‘model outputs, methodologies and key assumptions’ should be published at the same time.

This was not the first time the watchdog had scolded the government over its handling of the data.

In June 2020, UKSA President Sir David Norgrove wrote to then-Health Secretary Matt Hancock, saying the testing information was ‘far from complete’ and ‘misleading’.

It came as Mr Hancock announced the UK had exceeded its target of increasing coronavirus testing capacity to 200,000 by the end of May – without acknowledging that only 115,000 or so tests were actually being conducted per day .

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The SNP MP said, “In organizations like yours, there is no point in preparing accurate and timely information and statistics, if it is not understood by the people, then it is presented.

The ONS Data and Science Campus has produced a data masterclass in partnership with 10 Downing Street. How far does this masterclass go in addressing statistical illiteracy in the UK government?’

Responding, Sir Ian said that they have proven to be very popular since their launch in 2020 and are being expanded.

“Many people in government, the civil service, ambassadors, senior civil servants, permanent secretaries have commented that they have enjoyed it, that they have found it very useful, informative,” he said.

‘We are now in the process of bringing this within the wider ambit of the civil service, especially through the campus for civil services training.’

Sir Ian also elaborated that his ministers would receive an abridged version of the class in the coming weeks.

“I look forward to doing some small presentations for ministers in the next few weeks that will come from the masterclass,” he said.

However, answering Mr Cowan’s question on ‘statistical illiteracy’, Britain’s top statistician acknowledged that there was no quick fix.

“It has been a very good initiative and we are very proud of it,” he said.

‘But I’m not going to pretend you can do a masterclass, flick a switch, and all of a sudden everything goes right.’

The government’s poor handling of data during the pandemic has been exposed and criticized several times by Britain’s data watchdog, The UK Statistics Authority (UKSA).

The UKSA scolded the government last winter for failing to be transparent with the data used to justify a second national lockdown, which had the potential to ‘mislead the public and undermine trust’.

This data included an infamous chart presented by Number 10’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, that suggested there could be an astounding 4,000 deaths per day by 20 December if nothing is done.

But the figures came from an older model that estimated there would be 1,000 deaths per day by early November.

In fact the daily average was less than 200, meaning the prediction was five times higher.

And former Health Secretary Matt Hancock was slammed by the body last year for misleading the public on Covid tests at the height of the first wave of the pandemic.

While the need for a data masterclass was highlighted, officials being interviewed by lawmakers were overall positive about how the government handled data during the pandemic.

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