Is it time to ditch the daily Covid stats? MPs and scientists say numbers takes ‘mental toll’

By | June 30, 2021

Is it time to ditch the daily Covid stats? MPs and scientists say publicising infections and deaths every day ‘frightens’ people and numbers are ‘useless’ now jabs have cut risk

  • Scientists and MPs call for daily publication of Covid figures to be scrapped
  • Professor Spector says figures are ‘useless and scaremongering’
  • But some experts say the numbers inform choices and should not be suppressed

Top scientists and Tory MPs have urged the Government to stop publicising Covid statistics every day because they ‘frighten’ people and are becoming obsolete. 

The Department of Health has kept the public informed throughout the pandemic through its daily update of infections and deaths, as well as weekly hospitalisations data.

But there are growing concerns that the figures are becoming less necessary now that the vaccines have severed the link between cases and fatalities.

A slew of experts — most notably eminent professor Tim Spector, from King’s College London — said there is a danger of people becoming fixated on the numbers.

They told MailOnline the Covid figures should be published less often and alongside statistics on other health conditions like flu, heart disease and cancer – all of which are killing thousands more people than Covid every month. 

Conservative MPs are also said to be fed up with the numbers and are calling for a debate about when to stop publishing the data, as the country moves towards ‘Freedom Day’ on July 19. 

They are lobbying No10 to follow public health chiefs in Quebec, Canada, who announced this week they will release the updates weekly now, rather than daily. Singapore is also planning to stop publishing daily infection numbers.

Other scientists told MailOnline that the data informed people’s choices and indicated when they should moderate their behaviour to avoid catching the virus. 

It comes as Boris Johnson today told the Cabinet the country will have to ‘live with Covid in the future’ in the same way it does influenza, in what appeared to be a concerted effort to take emphasis away from the daily numbers. 

Professor Spector, the scientist behind the UK’s biggest symptom tracking study, told MailOnline continuing to publish figures in the current format is scaring the public.

He said: ‘The Government should start putting its daily figures “in context” and publish them alongside the number of deaths due to flu, heart disease and other conditions.

Professor Tim Spector, the scientist behind the UK's biggest symptom tracking study ZOE, told MailOnline that Covid data needs to be put in context of expected daily deaths and other illnesses

Professor Tim Spector, the scientist behind the UK’s biggest symptom tracking study ZOE, told MailOnline that Covid data needs to be put in context of expected daily deaths and other illnesses

It is ‘time to learn to live with Covid’: Downing Street warns UK will have to accept flu-like death figures of up to 20,000 a year 

The Government is coming round to the idea of learning to live with the coronavirus.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson took an increasingly hardline approach to ending lockdown on July 19 today, telling the Cabinet the country will have to ‘live with Covid in the future’.

Downing Street said the Cabinet – including new Health Secretary Sajid Javid – ‘agreed that once we have completed the road map, we will be able to live with Covid in the future, even if cases continue to rise, thanks to the protections provided by the vaccine.’

He made his Commons debut after replacing Matt Hancock and immediately ruled out an early end to lockdown in a week’s time.

But he was far more bullish about the restrictions being scrapped in three weeks time.

He told the Commons: ‘I spent my first day as Health Secretary just yesterday looking at the data and testing it to the limit.

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‘While we decided not to bring forward Step 4, we see no reason to go beyond July 19, because, in truth, no date we choose comes with zero risk for Covid.

‘We know we cannot simply eliminate it, we have to learn to live with it.’

Earlier today Home Secretary Priti Patel said we will have to ‘adapt our lives accordingly’ in order to get freedoms back while at the same time living with coronavirus.

‘Look, I would love to take the mask off – but at the right time, I will do that,’ she told Times Radio Breakfast.

‘We are living with coronavirus and many of us have been saying this across Government, probably for the last 12 months actually, we are living with this virus, we’re in a pandemic.

‘Yes, we have the vaccine, there’ll be boosters at some stage, booster jabs as well, so we are adapting our way of life.

‘I think to look to getting our freedoms back, which of course we all dearly want, we are adapting how we live and that means living with the concept of this pandemic, the virus, and obviously we adapt our lives accordingly.’

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman today told reporters that ‘as with other diseases such as the flu we will have to live with the virus’.

When he was asked whether this meant that the Government would be comfortable with an annual death toll similar to flu, he said: ‘That is just factual, the number. That is not a target or number that the Government sets.’

There were 22,000 deaths associated with flu in England in the 2017/18 season, Public Health England figures show.

The Government will continue to publish daily coronavirus figures once restrictions have been lifted, according to Downing Street.

Asked if this is expected to continue, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman told Westminster reporters: ‘Yes. We will continue, and are continuing, to provide these updates through the dashboard that provide an important level of transparency to the public and ensure understanding how we are progressing.’

Asked how long this could go on for, the spokesman added: ‘We will keep it under review as we go forward but clearly now it is entirely right that we continue to provide this level of data and transparency to the public as the world continues to fight this pandemic.’ 

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‘I’ve always and the ZOE app has always argued that they should be put into context. On their own they are useless and scaremongering.

‘They need to be put in context of the number of expected deaths on that day and things like the number of deaths from cancer or heart disease so people have some idea or proportion because generally they are used to frighten people.

‘People have forgotten how many admissions there were at the height of winter.’ 

Unlike at the beginning of the pandemic, the link between the number of people catching the virus and those being admitted to hospital and dying is now weaker, due to the success of the vaccine roll out.

The latest government figures show that 84.6 per cent (44.5million) of the UK adult population has received their first Covid jab, while 62.1 per cent (32.7million) have received their second. 

At the height of the second wave in January, 4,579 people were admitted to hospital in a single day. In the first wave of the pandemic, admissions hit 3,565 on April 1.

A fraction of this amount is currently being admitted to hospital, with 223 patients going to hospital each day on average in the seven days up to June 20.

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Professor Tony Brookes, a health data scientist at Leicester University, told MailOnline he would ‘very, very much support’ halting the daily publication of Covid cases and deaths.

‘It’s all nonsensical scientifically,’ he said. ‘It is clearly motivated to promote fear to keep people compliant.

‘They’ll never stop publishing those figures if they want a climate of fear.

‘But, if they are ready to move on then they might be receptive to dropping daily figures which are not helpful.

He added: ‘There are more people dying every day from pneumonia, for example, but we don’t get a daily update on that.’

Figures published today by the Office for National Statistics show that 3.5 times more people died from flu and pneumonia than Covid in the week leading up to June 18. 

The data also shows that deaths caused by the virus increased by 12 per cent compared to the previous week, but was still only responsible for 0.78 per cent of all fatalities in England. 

Professor Karol Sikora, a healthcare specialist and former cancer programme director for the World Health Organization, also called on the Government to dump the daily cases and deaths figures.

‘The only figures that actually matter are hospital admissions, and they have been below 250 consistently every 24 hours.

‘The number of cases is irrelevant, the more people you test the more you will find.

‘But the number of hospital admissions tell you if the NHS is likely to go into a crisis because of coronavirus — and at the moment it is a flat-liner as you would say.’

When asked whether the daily figures were stoking an environment of fear, he strongly agreed.

‘We don’t do it for other viruses and we don’t do it for the common cold or influenza, and influenza kills many people every year and we don’t worry about it in the population.’

Professor Sir Simon Wessely, a psychiatrist and epidemiologist at King’s College London, said bringing an end to the daily data publications would be a ‘great idea’ that he’s ‘completely in favour of’ and would be ‘part of the return to normality’.

He said the figures should be published weekly and alongside the other main causes of death, like cancer, so people can see Covid in that context and make their own judgement about the risk.

‘Hugh Edwards [the BBC News at Ten presenter] reading out every number every night does not serve a constructive purpose anymore,’ he said.

‘The virus is here to stay, along with many other risks in life.’

Professor Wessely added as the number get lower they get ‘very difficult to interpret and measure’, meaning small fluctuations can cause alarm for no reason. 

‘I can’t see what the downside is. I have been saying this for ages,’ he said.

Dr Yoon Loke, a professor of medicine and pharmacology at Norwich Medical School, said that Covid figures can only be helpful when used to draw conclusions over a long duration.

‘The number of deaths continues to be in small numbers and relatively little change over the recent months. It doesn’t help to look at small daily fluctuations,’ he said.

Interested members of the public should keep an eye on the weekly Office for National Statistics Data instead, he said. 

Dr Loke said: ‘At a later stage, the Cases data should also revert to a weekly release. Covid is here to stay, much like flu and other respiratory illnesses. 

‘Life has to go on, and we can’t keep fretting only about Covid when there are many, many other illnesses that are causing huge burdens on the NHS. 

Professor Tony Brookes, a health data scientist at Leicester University, said he would 'very, very much support' suspending the publication of daily figures

Professor Karol Sikora, a healthcare specialist, also called on the Government to cancel its daily cases and deaths updates

Professor Tony Brookes, a health data scientist at Leicester University, (left) said he would ‘very, very much support’ suspending the publication of daily figures. Professor Karol Sikora, a healthcare specialist, (right) also called on the Government to cancel its daily cases and deaths updates

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Professor Sir Simon Wessely, a psychiatrist and epidemiologist at King's College London, said bringing an end to the daily data publications would be a 'great idea' that he's 'completely in favour of' and would be 'part of the return to normality'

Professor Sir Simon Wessely, a psychiatrist and epidemiologist at King’s College London, said bringing an end to the daily data publications would be a ‘great idea’ that he’s ‘completely in favour of’ and would be ‘part of the return to normality’

‘Imagine what the mental state of the nation would be like if there were daily statistics rammed down people’s throats regarding new cancers, heart attacks, strokes, pneumonia etc. 

‘People would live in a constant state of fear. I do accept that if outbreaks occur, then the statistics should be made available more regularly.’

In addition to the scientists, MPs are voicing concerns about the daily Covid data.

One Tory minister told Politico’s Playbook that the constant information on cases and deaths encouraged people to be extra cautious and the same data for flu cases was shared there would be a call for restrictions for that virus.

Another MP told Playbook the numbers put a ‘mental weight’ on people and thing cannot get back to normality if there is always speculation on social media and in the news about small rises in cases.

Public health chiefs in Canada today announced that they would switch from publishing Covid daily to weekly.

Mylène Drouin, the regional director of publish health in Montreal, tweeted that her region would stop publishing data from the last 24 hour and only publish Covid data on Mondays.

She wrote that her team continues to follow the situation with great attention, but the decision was made because the pandemic is currently stable. 

But Alexander Edwards, an associate professor in biomedical technology at the Reading School of Pharmacy, said: ‘Not publishing the data is an interesting idea and something worth discussing, but the simple idea is transparency is really important. 

‘The amount of information is unprecedented, but generally in the UK we have a policy of making it available. If the data exists we should be publishing it.

‘There is a really valid point on data overload, but it’s more important to help people understand what is going on and let people know what the data actually means. 

‘There’s lots of information on symptoms and testing, but not much about daily life going forward. I think it would be better to try and help people understand, addressing that problem.’

Bharat Pankhania, a senior clinical researcher at the University of Exeter’s College of Medicine and Health, supported this view.

He said: ‘There is no need for people to look at the data if they do not want to, but on the other hand it’s very important because it drives actions and interventions in a timely way. 

‘If I told you the infection rates are very high in your locality that’s the message that is very important and can inform choices. There’s every reason for keeping publishing it, including to reassure people.’

Professor Sheila Bird, a professor at the University of Cambridge’s biostatistics unit, said if data is published appropriately it ‘can aid the public’s understanding of how the pandemic is evolving’.

The data from 2020 compared to 2021 can also be presented as an extra visual aid, she said.

‘Developing informative data-displays which support public understanding is better than suppression of data that the public has a right to know about,’ Professor Bird added.

It comes as a study from scientists at Cambridge University found that fewer than one in a thousand people who catch Covid in England now die from the disease. They estimate the overall infection fatality rate (IFR) of coronavirus has been driven down to 0.085 per cent thanks to the country’s hugely successful vaccine rollout.


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