Should UK ditch daily Covid data updates?

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Scientists today called on the Government to stop publicising its daily Covid figures because they are becoming ‘misleading’ and fuelling an ‘unhealthy addiction’ to the stats.

Until recently the UK had to be ‘extremely vigilant’ about rising cases, which signalled a coming surge in hospital admissions and the possibility of more restrictions. But experts say now the link between infections and severe illness has been severed it has ‘changed the nature of the beast’.

Yesterday, the official coronavirus statistics dashboard showed there had been 330 deaths and 1,905 admissions to hospitals, with a total of 19,000 infected patients occupying beds on NHS wards.

But the majority of inpatients are not primarily being treated for the virus in parts of the country, a symptom of the extreme infectiousness but mildness of Omicron. The number of Covid patients needing mechanical ventilation has barely changed since the wave began to spiral.

And despite daily deaths creeping up in recent weeks, a rising proportion are now ‘coincidental’ with the virus not the underlying cause. Last week it was as high as a quarter of deaths. 

Professor Yoon Loke, a medicine expert at Norwich Medical School, said it was time to abandon the daily Covid updates because the data was becoming ‘incredibly problematic’.

He told MailOnline: ‘We are in a very different position now compared to two years ago, or even 12 months ago, where we were facing the need to be extremely vigilant to the exponentially rising tide of life-threatening illness. The nature of the beast (has now) changed very substantially.’

Professor Loke, backed by other experts, said the figures should now be exclusively released every other day and then every week — as is already done for flu in the UK. 

‘Part of the transition out of the pandemic is stopping people feeling so obsessed by case numbers and hospitalisations, because it’s not entirely healthy,’ Professor Francis Balloux, a geneticist at University College London. He added: ‘We’re all a bit addicted to it.’

Professor Tim Spector, an epidemiologist at King’s College London, said at the very least the numbers should be published alongside admissions and death rates for other conditions, and compared to previous winters to put them in context.

He also warned the data was becoming ‘increasingly unreliable’, saying many people who get a positive lateral flow test are now failing to register it with the authorities.

But critics say the country is still recording 100,000 cases a day, which is still very high and above the point where people can begin to put Covid out of their minds.

Ministers have already put in motion plans to ‘live with’ the virus, with the remaining ‘Plan B’ measures set to be scrapped next week.

Face masks in schools and work from home guidance were officially ditched yesterday, and Boris Johnson says he now plans to drop all Covid curbs by the spring — including the legal requirement to self-isolate after catching the virus.

The above graph shows the proportion of Covid patients in England’s hospitals that are not primarily being treated for the virus. Data is from NHS England

The above graph shows the proportion of Covid patients in hospitals that were not primarily being treated for the virus since Omicron took hold, and is based on figures from NHS England. They showed that in London just four in ten Covid patients are now actually being treated for the disease

The above graph shows the proportion of Covid patients in hospitals that were not primarily being treated for the virus since Omicron took hold, and is based on figures from NHS England. They showed that in London just four in ten Covid patients are now actually being treated for the disease

Covid fell to become the fourth biggest killer in England last month as Omicron engulfed the country, official data shows

Professor Yoon Loke, a medicine expert at Norwich Medical School, said it was time to abandon the daily Covid updates because the data was becoming 'incredibly problematic'

And Professor Tim Spector, a top epidemiologist at King's College London, said the figures needed to be put 'into context' by comparing them to last year

Professor Yoon Loke (left), a medicine expert at Norwich Medical School, said it was time to abandon the daily Covid updates because the data was becoming ‘incredibly problematic’. And Professor Tim Spector, a top epidemiologist at King’s College London, said the figures needed to be put ‘into context’ by comparing them to last year

The above figure shows the proportion of Covid deaths are people who have died from the disease (red) to those who have died with the disease (blue). It shows the proportion dying with the disease is now rising

The above figure shows the proportion of Covid deaths are people who have died from the disease (red) to those who have died with the disease (blue). It shows the proportion dying with the disease is now rising

Professor Loke, who is also a consultant physician at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals, said that ministers should stop publishing the figures every day because they were now ‘misleading’.

He told MailOnline: ‘Those of us who work front-line at the hospital now recognise that there are far fewer (Covid) patients who require oxygen treatment or management in intensive care units.

Even SAGE admits doom-laden daily figures are becoming difficult to read

Even SAGE has admitted that the doom-laden daily Covid figures are becoming difficult to interpret. 

In documents released on Thursday the advisory group — which uses the data in its modelling — called its reliability into question. 

They said: ‘There is uncertainty about current trends in the numbers of new infections, particularly as a result of changes to testing policy and behaviours.

‘An increasing proportion of these reported admissions are positive tests among people admitted primarily for other than Covid, reflecting the very high community prevalence.’

Figures already show that up to a quarter of Covid deaths are now people who died with the virus rather than from it.

And in some parts of the country only four in ten Covid patients are actually being treated for the disease, with the rest admitted for another condition such as a sprained ankle.

It suggests that the daily figures are over-stating the size of the current outbreak or the level of concern.

Experts have criticised ministers for continuing to use scare tactics on the British public.

Some say it is now time to consider moving the daily publication of figures to every other day, and then weekly, as the country begins to return to normal. 

‘We have seen that patients who attend hospital for non-Covid related problems happen incidentally to test positive.

‘Equally, there are patients in older age groups who have serious medical problems and require admission to hospital where they then test positive for Covid, even though that is not their main reason for being in hospital.

‘Unfortunately, some of the older patients may succumb to their other serious medical problems but happened to be recorded as a Covid-related death because they died within 28 days of a positive test.’

He said the ‘nature of the beast’ had changed, meaning daily figures on Covid hospitalisations and deaths were now ‘incredibly problematic’ and ‘potentially misleading’. 

Professor Loke added: ‘I personally don’t feel the current daily figures can tell us much about serious or life threatening major illness.’

When asked if the daily numbers should be scrapped, he told MailOnline: ‘I would favour scaling down to something like Monday, Wednesday, Friday reporting to start with, and then to once a week if we reach an endemic plateau.’

Dr Tony Brookes, a health data scientist at Leicester University, warned the Government should start publishing the daily Covid figures ‘in context’ with other illnesses.

He told MailOnline: ‘The numbers are only reliable once they are put into context (by including figures for other diseases). But if you don’t know what’s behind them, or what’s in those numbers, then they are misleading.

‘If they are going to put figures out those should be in context: Telling us how many people are in hospital with Covid, telling us how many went in with a Covid infection, and then compare that to how many who would go in with flu or pneumonia infection in a normal year.

‘You’ve got to put these numbers in context and explain them rather than put out the most scary figure.’

Dr Brookes said the numbers made him concerned for his elderly mother, who has little experience with dealing with statistics but sees them on TV every night. He said they were terrifying her to keep wearing a face mask because of Covid, when really ‘it’s about as dangerous as the flu now’. 

NHS England’s most up to date figures showed less than half of all Covid ‘patients’ are now being treated primarily for the disease in London (40.7 per cent) and the East of England (44.9 per cent).

In England, just over half of Covid ‘patients’ (52.1 per cent) are currently in hospital primarily because of the virus. For comparison, in October before Omicron took hold three-quarters (25.2 per cent) were primarily ill with the virus.

NHS bosses do not currently give a daily breakdown on the number of Covid ‘admissions’ which are for patients who are mainly ill with the virus.

But the health service warns incidental cases still put a strain on hospital resources because they have to be isolated from non-infected patients. And medics warn Covid can exacerbate other conditions that people are admitted for, even if it is not the primary illness they are receiving care for.  

The trend is also emerging in Covid death statistics, with the share of ‘coincidental’ fatalities rising over the last few weeks with more and more people now dying with the virus rather than from it.

The Office for National Statistics’ monthly report showed Covid fell to the fourth biggest killer in England and Wales last month despite an unprecedented wave of Omicron infections. It is behind dementia, heart disease and chronic lung disease.

And in its weekly report on Tuesday the ONS said a quarter of Covid deaths recorded over the week to January 7 were people who had died with rather than from the virus.

Of the 922 deaths in England and Wales where Covid was mentioned on the death certificate, the virus was not ruled to be the primary reason for the death in 210 cases — or 23 per cent — although it may have been a contributory factor. 

Professor Spector, who runs the ZOE Covid Symptom study which publishes its findings weekly, said the current daily numbers were ‘almost impossible’ for people to understand because they are published without context.

He told MailOnline: ‘We need to be putting data in context with hospitalisations and deaths, and also comparing what we are seeing today with previous years.’ 

Professor Spector also warned that the Government’s case(s) data was becoming ‘increasingly unreliable’ because people are no longer logging positive lateral flow tests.  

He said: ‘Over the past few weeks we’ve seen a widening gap between the ZOE data and the government data. 

‘It’s been jumping around from day to day, so I would like to see people stop using this data as the daily gold standard, as it’s no longer reliable and potentially misleading.’ 

Professor Balloux said that the figures were now becoming less reliable because more people were dying with Covid rather than from it.

He told the Daily Telegraph: ‘At the moment, the numbers look horrible and worse than they should.

‘The upside is they will soon look fantastic. I think we’re in a better situation than we have ever been since March 2020, and especially in the UK, I am pretty optimistic that we can soon call a day and then we’re finished.’ 

He added: ‘I’m not in favour of scrapping the dashboard right now because cases are pretty high and it might spark panic… but maybe soon we could start doing it every other day, then weekly.’

Some scientists support the Government continuing to publish its daily updates, but must ensure they are not ‘frightening’ people with the numbers. 

Dr Al Edwards, a  biomedical technology expert at Reading University, said a ‘much better option’ than removing the data from the public domain would be to keep publishing it but alongside other figures.

He told MailOnline: ‘The current dashboard really needs a bit of analysis and context to fully understand the numbers.

‘We should celebrate our open and transparent data sharing, but make sure people don’t get frightened by the data, by explaining what it means more clearly.’

The UK Health Security Agency already publishes a weekly report on Covid cases across the country alongside the figures for other diseases such as flu and RSV. 

Plateauing hospital admission rates and the growing disconnect between infections and deaths has given the Prime Minister the confidence to lift Plan B restrictions next week.

Mr Johnson has also revealed he intends to ditch all Covid laws by the spring, including compulsory isolation for positive Covid cases. WFH guidance and masks in schools were the first measures to be officially ditched today.

Doubling down on the Government’s decision to scrap the curbs, Sajid Javid signalled that ministers are prepared to tolerate more than 20,000 Covid deaths a year without reimposing measures. 

Mr Javid, the Health Secretary, told Sky News yesterday: ‘We need to learn to live with it. Sadly people die of flu as well. In a bad flu year, you can sadly lose about 20,000 lives.

‘But we don’t shut down our entire country and put in place lots of restrictions to deal with it. We need to continue with our lives with sensible, appropriate and proportionate measures.’

He added: ‘Covid is not going away. It’s going to be with us for many many years, perhaps forever, and we have to learn to live with it.’

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