Stats watchdog scolds UKHSA for data use that supports anti-vaxxers

UK statistics watchdog scolds PHE’s replacement body for publishing ‘misleading’ figures which anti-vaxxers have seized as proof that Covid jabs don’t work

  • UK Government published data suggesting jabbed are more likely to get Covid
  • The data show Covid case rate in the vaccinated was double that of the unjabbed
  • But ‘behavioural differences’ like the jabbed socialising more could be reason 
  • Statistic watchdog says the data needs to be explained better to prevent abuse

British health chiefs have been reprimanded for publishing ‘potentially misleading’ data which anti-vaxxers have jumped on to peddle claims that jabs don’t work.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) now publishes weekly surveillance reports, after taking over the reigns from the now-defunct Public Health England.

Over the past few weeks, the agency’s data shows infection rates are higher in fully-vaccinated adults compared to the unjabbed. 

Anti-vaxx commentators and campaigners have seized the data as proof that Covid vaccines don’t work.

The UK’s statistics watchdog says the UK Health Security Agency needs to do better at explaining its data after anti-vaxxers claimed a report by the body showing there were more Covid cases among vaccinated people than the unvaccinated was proof that Covid vaccines don’t work. The data, replicated above, does show there were more cases among the vaccinated over 30s than their un-jabbed counterparts,  but behavioural reasons, like the vaccinated socialising more freely could partly explain the difference 

But the UK’s statistics watchdog has now waded into the issue, calling on the UKHSA to better explain some of the issues with the data. 

The Office of Statistics Regulation (OSR) said UKHSA needs to more effectively highlight how the jabbed and unjabbed could be behaving differently might explain the differences, and use more than one data set to present a fuller picture. 

UKHSA has already made a series of amendments to the report following controversy over its presentation of the data.    

It now caveats its findings by saying the data is ‘unadjusted’ and shouldn’t be used to compare unjabbed and jabbed populations because there are likely to be ‘systematic differences’ between the groups.

This includes the vaccinated being more likely to get tested because they are more ‘health conscious’.

Ministers to get crash courses in statistics to address ‘data illiteracy’ 

Ministers will be given a ‘data masterclass’ to address the issue of ‘statistical illiteracy’ within Government. 

The crash courses have already been running in the civil service but will now be given to senior ministers in the run up to Christmas. 

It is a direct response to criticisms 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 were ‘not always supported by transparent information provided in a timely manner.’ 

Testing data and Covid death numbers used to justify the second lockdown were two areas where the Government was scolded in the past.

It is not known who in Cabinet will be attending the masterclasses and if Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be among them. 

The country’s top statistician said the workshops have proven successful, but also acknowledged the problem won’t be fixed like ‘flicking a switch’. 

It also suggests jabbed people may be socialising more freely, and thus are more likely to catch the virus. 

OSR director general Ed Humpherson yesterday wrote to the UKHSA’s boss Dr Jenny Harries stating the changes were welcome.

But he added the data could still be used by anti-vaxxers to cast doubt on vaccine effectiveness. 

‘It remains the case that the surveillance report includes rates per 100,000 which can be used to argue that vaccines are not effective,’ Mr Humpherson said. 

‘I know that this is not the intention of the surveillance report, but the potential for misuse remains.

‘In publishing these data, you need to address more comprehensively the risk that it misleads people into thinking that it says something about vaccine effectiveness.’

He added the UKHSA report needed to explain the behavioural differences between the vaccinated and unvaccinated that could account for the differences.  

Mr Humpherson added: ‘I do not think your surveillance report goes far enough in explaining this crucial point.’ 

The latest data, published October 28, shows there were more cases of Covid per 100,000 people in all vaccinated groups over the age of 30 than their un-jabbed counterparts.

For example, there were 1,936 cases among every 100,000 fully vaccinated adults aged 40-49, compared to 835 in the unvaccinated. 

It should also be noted that while anti-vaxxers claim the data shows Covid vaccines don’t work, the same data set clearly demonstrates the jabs reduce the chance of hospitalisation and death from the virus.  

Hospitalisation and death rates from Covid were between three to five times higher among the unvaccinated than those who received at least two doses of the vaccine. 

Another aspect of the OSR’s stinging letter to UKHSA was the organisation’s choice of denominator for its Covid data.

The UKHSA’s report uses the National Immunisation Management Service (NIMS), a weekly updated dataset based on people registering for NHS services.

However, NIMS likely overcounts the population eligible for vaccines, partly due to people not changing their NHS registration details when they move. Therefore, it may be underestimating vaccine uptake.

Mr Humpherson has suggested UKHSA also use ONS population estimates, like the Government’s Covid dashboard does. 

‘Given these multiple uncertainties, it is good that you are working with colleagues in the ONS on the best denominator to use in these calculations,’ he said. 

‘In the meantime, you should consider setting out these uncertainties more clearly, including by publishing the rates per 100,000 using both denominators, and making clear in the table, perhaps through formatting, that the column showing case rates in unvaccinated people is of particular concern.’ 

Responding to the the letter UKHSA head of immunisation Dr Mary Ramsay said they were grateful to the statistics watchdog on helping make their report less vulnerable to anti-vaxxers. 

 ‘There has been some misunderstanding and, at times, deliberate manipulation of the data presented in the UKHSA Vaccine Surveillance Report by those who want to undermine the vaccine programme, and we are grateful to the UK Statistics Authority for working with us to help make the report less open to manipulation.’

‘We regularly review our data outputs to ensure they are as clear as possible and reflect the current situation and will make any appropriate updates to this report in the future if we feel they are required.’

‘It is absolutely clear in our report that Covid vaccines provide a high level of protection against severe outcomes, and the data shows that rates of hospitalisation and death are substantially lower in fully vaccinated people across all age groups.’ 

But she added the report would continue to use NIMS to ensure data could be compared in real time. 

‘We continue to use the NIMS denominator – the NHS national register – to ensure the data is comparable week-on-week,’ she said.

The Government’s handling of Covid statistics has come under fire over the course of the pandemic with ministers being scolded for how they use data.

Last November Number 10 was criticised by the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) for not being transparent enough with the data used to justify England’s second lockdown. 

And in June 2020, the UKSA chairman Sir David Norgrove wrote to the Health Secretary at the time, Matt Hancock, stating that the information he was using on Covid testing is ‘far from complete’ and ‘misleading’.

It was recently revealed that Government Ministers will be given a ‘data masterclass’ to address the issue of ‘statistical illiteracy’.

The crash courses have already been running in the civil service but will now be given to senior ministers in the run up to Christmas. 

It is not known who in Cabinet will be attending the masterclasses and if Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be among them. 

Double-vaccinated patients still have a 25% chance of catching Covid if a jabbed family member tests positive

 Double-jabbed people still have a one in four chance of catching Covid from an infected household member, according to a study by ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Fergusson.  

This is even the case if the person infected was fully jabbed themselves, in what is known as a vaccine breakthrough case, said Imperial College London researchers.

But the risk to unvaccinated household members was even greater, with a 38 per cent chance of catching the virus from infected household members.    

Professor Ajit Lalvani, Imperial College of London’s chair of infections diseases, who contributed to the study said the findings show there was still a substantial chance of infection even if you get the Coivd vaccine. 

‘Even if that person is double vaccinated they tend to transmit infection to other household members,’ he said. 

‘About one in four people exposed in the household to a breakthrough case get infected, which is quite a large number.’

But Professor Lalvani said the risk of Covid infection was even greater for unvaccinated household members, proving the merits of getting a vaccine.

‘When we looked at unvaccinated contacts in the households their risk of acquiring infection was around 38 per cent,’ he said. 

‘This means that the vaccine is still effective at reducing the risk of transmission, in this case from 38 per cent to 25 per cent.’

However, Professor Lalvani explained the real difference was what what happened after infection.

‘Crucially because they are double vaccinated they tend to only get mild illness or symptom free infection,’ he said,

‘When they (unvaccinated) are infected they are at risk of severe illnesses, hospitalisation and death.’


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