Is it time for the government to stop publishing daily COVID numbers?

·Senior news reporter, Yahoo News UK
·4 min read
People wearing face coverings in Kensington, London. Some MPs are reportedly calling for the government to stop publishing daily COVID data. (PA)
People wearing face coverings in Kensington, London. Some MPs are reportedly calling for the government to stop publishing daily COVID data. (PA)

For many, checking the latest coronavirus data on the government website has been a daily ritual over the past 18 months.

With the Delta variant of the virus causing yet another exponential increase in case numbers – a 73% week-on-week rise was recorded on Tuesday – it would appear these figures remain as vital as ever.

However, some Conservative MPs are reportedly lobbying for daily updates to cease, while one top Oxford University scientist said case numbers are now “trivial” due to the vaccine rollout.

So, is it time for the government to stop publishing daily updates? Here, Yahoo News UK assesses the arguments.

What is the daily data?

At about 4pm every day, the government publishes the latest data on COVID-19 infection numbers, hospital admissions, deaths, tests and vaccinations on its coronavirus dashboard.

These data are presented in a simple “UK summary”, though users can also access more localised figures by nations, regions, local council areas and postcode areas.

What are the arguments against publishing daily data?

On Tuesday, Politico’s London Playbook newsletter reported “several” Tory MPs want to initiate a debate about when to stop publishing the figures, with England's lockdown set to end on 19 July.

It reported one minister as saying the “daily drip” of infections and deaths fosters “ultra-caution”, while another MP said the daily data leave a “mental weight” on people.

Watch: Sajid Javid confirms 19 July as date for England’s lockdown restrictions to end

This argument is being made as part of a notion that we need to learn to live with a virus that is not going to disappear.

Singapore is one country which is planning to stop publishing daily cases, hospital admission and deaths as it begins to treat COVID as endemic.

In the UK on Monday, 22,868 new COVID cases were reported by the government. This was the highest number since 30 January.

However, hospital admissions and deaths – while increasing – are nowhere near the levels seen during the second wave of the pandemic over the winter, as demonstrated by these two charts.

While case numbers are rapidly accelerating, deaths and hospital admissions are still relatively low compared to the second wave. (gov.uk)
While case numbers are rapidly accelerating, deaths and hospital admissions are still relatively low compared to the second wave. (gov.uk)

This is more evidence of the high effectiveness of vaccines in preventing serious illness.

It’s also why Professor John Bell, Oxford University’s regius professor of medicine, said Monday’s 22,868 new cases was a “trivial” matter.

Appearing on Channel 4 News on Monday night, Prof Bell was asked if there is a greater chance of a new vaccine-resistant variant emerging given these high case numbers.

“This is trivial, actually. These are mostly people under the age of 30, often people in their teenage years, or younger school kids. They don’t often get very sick.

“The data actually supports the notion that if you have two doses of vaccine you really are protected against any serious trouble.”

Asked if we need to stop “fixating” on daily infections and instead monitor hospital admissions and deaths, Prof Bell said: “I think that’s what we really should be [focusing on]. Who’s getting sick? That’s the question. And if people are not getting sick, I think that’s where we want to get to.

“Then we need to concentrate our efforts on making sure the rest of the world gets vaccinated as quickly as possible, because it is possible to get variants that blast through the vaccines.”

What are the arguments for publishing daily data?

Dr Duncan Robertson, a respected coronavirus modeller, told Yahoo News UK "our ability to have information shouldn't be reduced".

He said: "Like a flu season, cases and hospitalisations can vary and it’s important that the public, hospitals and decision makers know how severe COVID is in the community so they can plan accordingly.

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"At the moment we know there is a significant amount of COVID in the community, particularly among younger people, and that allows us to assess our own personal risk.

"That can be quite important for people who haven’t been fully vaccinated or are at higher risk."

What has the government said about publishing daily data?

Asked if Downing Street will continue to publish daily figures once restrictions have been lifted, Boris Johnson's official spokesman said on Tuesday: “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.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to Johnstone's Paints Limited in Batley, West Yorkshire, ahead of the Batley and Spen by-election on July 1. Picture date: Monday June 28, 2021. (Photo by Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images)
Some MPs and scientists are questioning the value of the government's daily publication of coronavirus case figures. (PA)

However, the spokesman did not answer when asked how long this will go on for.

“We will keep it under review as we go forward," he said. "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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