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by Staff reporter
25 January 2022
Statistics watchdog rejects claims First Minister 'seriously twisted' Covid data

Statistics watchdog rejects claims First Minister 'seriously twisted' Covid data

Britain’s statistics watchdog has dismissed claims Nicola Sturgeon “seriously twisted” Covid data.

Last week, Liberal Democrat MSP Willie Rennie wrote to the UK Statistics Authority urging them to look into the First Minister’s claim that infection levels in England were “over 20 per cent higher than those in Scotland”.

Rennie said the figures show that in the week ending 15 January both Scotland and England had an infection rate of one person per 20 while there was just a one percentage point difference in infection rates taken as a percentage of the population.

In his letter, Rennie asked UKSA chair Sir David Norgrove to “advise on whether the ONS statistics should have been portrayed in this way and whether the First Minister should continue to report statistics in this manner”.

“The public have a right to always expect the Scottish Government’s interpretation of data to be robust. This is even more important when that data is being used to justify and substantiate restrictions on their liberty and freedoms under the use of emergency powers,” he wrote.

“Parliament has granted powers to ministers that would not be countenanced in any other circumstances so scrutiny of how they are used is essential.

“Public confidence in these statistics must not be put at risk. There must be no bias, spin or manipulation. However, I am concerned that these statistics may have been seriously twisted.”

In his response to the Lib Dem leader, Norgrove said the First Minister was correct, but so was Rennie. 

He said the figures referred to by both politicians, the ONS’s Coronavirus Infection Survey (CIS), estimated that in the week ending 15 January 2022, 5.47 per cent of people in England and 4.49 per cent of people in Scotland had Covid. 

That meant the First Minister “correctly stated that the figure for England was more than 20 per cent higher than the figure for Scotland” and that “it would also be correct to say that the prevalence of COVID-19 was around one percentage point higher in England than in Scotland.” 

He added: “Quantitative comparisons between the two estimates should take account of the precision with which they are available, but the data does suggest that the rate of infection is lower in Scotland than in England.”

Sturgeon raised the statistics during Tuesday’s Covid update to parliament, telling MSPs that she wanted to address opposition claims that the extra protective measures introduced to the variant were “unnecessary”.

The SNP leader said: “In response, I told Parliament last week that – and I quote - ‘The ONS figures this week show that infection levels in England are over 20 per cent higher than those in Scotland’.

“Willie Rennie issued a furious press release on the back of this, saying that I had ‘twisted’ the data. He also reported me to the impartial Chair of the UK Statistics Authority.

“I am pleased to say that he has now written back to Mr Rennie.

“Oddly, as far as I am aware, Mr Rennie has not press released the reply.

“Sir David Norgrove, the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority says in his reply that I - again, I’m quoting - ‘correctly stated that the figure for England was more than 20 per cent higher than the figure for Scotland’.”

The First Minister added: “To me what matters is that Scotland is doing better now than we were before Christmas, and better than we might have been had we not taken action to stem transmission.

“How we are faring relative to England is not, in my view, the key comparison.

“But given that others have sought to draw that comparison - inaccurately - in an attempt to undermine confidence in the Scottish Government’s decisions, I hope all members will now accept the conclusion of the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority that the data I cited was accurate.”

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