Updated 14 May 2020

Information available on COVID-19 cases and deaths has been developed rapidly in a constantly shifting environment. The work being done by analysts to get this information into the public domain is commendable. There will always be a desire for improvements to the timeliness and completeness of data, but this should not undermine the huge efforts being made by individuals and organisations to deliver timely data to support decision making and inform the public.

Our vision is statistics that serve the public good. We aim to support producers of statistics and data to achieve this while championing the needs of the public. We have undertaken a short review of the data releases on COVID-19 cases and deaths – at a UK level and for each country within the UK – to help understanding of the available sources and to highlight strengths and our view on areas for improvement. This document outlines the findings from our review, that is necessarily only a snapshot of what are very fast-moving developments.

In reviewing the various statistical outputs, we have been guided by the three pillars of the Code of Practice for Statistics: Trustworthiness, Quality and Value. Trustworthiness refers the governance that surrounds the production of statistics; Quality refers to the characteristics of the data; and Value considers the extent to which the statistics answer users’ questions.

Summary of findings

There have been many developments to the data and supporting information available on COVID-19. Analysts have made huge efforts to deliver the information and have shown a willingness to address concerns and make rapid improvements.

There is great value in having timely data, such as the daily surveillance data covering the UK that is published less than 24 hours after the data reporting period. It provides an important leading indicator of the trend in COVID-19 testing, cases and deaths, which is essential to inform operational decisions being made at pace. However, the speed at which these data are made available means there has been a trade off with completeness, and the limitations of the UK data have not been fully explained.

The nature and extent of the uncertainty around the UK estimates of deaths associated with COVID-19 has not so far been made clear. However, we are aware of efforts being made to improve the clarity and transparency of the material that accompanies the daily briefing, including drawing on support from the Government Statistical Service (GSS).

In contrast, the weekly death statistics published for England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland provide a more complete measure of the number of deaths associated with COVID-19, but these statistics are released with a greater time lag.

ONS’s publication of its forward workplans in this area is a helpful development for stakeholders and it is important that other nations provide detail about their plans to keep users of the statistics informed. We understand that the GSS is considering the accessibility of all the information on COVID-19 to allow users to navigate all outputs from a central hub, such as the GSS health and care statistics landscape.

Areas for further development

  1. It is important to maintain public confidence and trustworthiness of statistics that are used to inform public debate. The nature and extent of the uncertainty around the UK estimates of deaths associated with COVID-19 should be clarified.
  2. All statistics producers should show they are actively considering the diverse and changing user need for COVID-19 statistics, by publishing detailed plans for improvements, for example, information about the occupancy of intensive care units or beds, or on person characteristics, such as ethnicity.
  3. The GSS should consider the accessibility of the information and allow users to navigate all COVID-19 related outputs from a central hub, such as the GSS landscape.
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