Exclusive: ‘Covid graphs were wrong in suggesting daily deaths would soon surpass first wave’

Government forced to reissue key charts used to justify second lockdown after admitting projected fatalities were overstated.

“The use of data has not consistently been supported by transparent information being provided in a timely manner. As a result, there is potential to confuse the public and undermine confidence in the statistics.” – The Office for Statistics Regulation

By Laura Donnelly, Health Editor and Harry Yorke, Political Correspondent www.telegraph.co.uk

Official projections which pushed the country into a second lockdown have been quietly revised to no longer suggest deaths could soon overtake those at the peak of the first wave, The Telegraph has learned.

Graphs presented at a televised Downing Street press conference on Saturday suggested that the UK would see up to 1,500 Covid deaths a day by early December, far beyond the numbers seen in the first wave.

But documents released by Government show that the figures were far too high and have been “amended after an error was found”. The forecast has been revised, reducing the upper end of the scale to around 1,000 deaths a day by December 8 – on a par with the peak of the pandemic in April.

Presenting the graphs on Saturday, Sir Patrick Vallance, Boris Johnson’s chief scientific adviser, said the statistics, which covered a six-week period, presented “a very grim picture” with “greater certainty” than long-term modelling could provide.

But the Government Office for Science has now corrected two of the slides, reducing both the upper end of the range for deaths and that for hospital admissions by one third. While the presentation suggested daily hospital admissions could reach up to 9,000 in early December, the upper end of the range has now been cut to 6,000 in the updated slides.

It comes days after it emerged that separate modelling showing a worst-case scenario of 4,000 deaths a day by the end of December was based on out of date data which has also since been updated.

The revelation prompted former Prime Minister Theresa May to question the Government’s use of statistics and ask whether “figures are chosen to support the policy rather than the policy being based on the figures”.

On Thursday night, leading scientist Professor Carl Heneghan, of Oxford University, said the graphs presented at the weekend had been found to be “riddled with errors”, raising concern that a desire for lockdown had seen forecasts “systematically” exaggerated.

Greg Clark, the chairman of the Commons science and technology committee, said the belated admission of errors was “of great concern”, adding that the changes to the upper range in the forecast on hospital admissions was particularly concerning as this was “the key projection” in the case for lockdown.

Steve Baker, a backbench Tory MP given advance sight of the projections ahead of the Downing Street briefing, said: “Government must accept that public confidence rests on not over-egging the pudding.”

On Thursday, the UK statistics watchdog criticised the Government for a lack of transparency about the data driving its lockdown policies, warning that the failings could create confusion and undermine public confidence.

In other developments, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, extended the furlough scheme, under which the Treasury covers 80 per cent of the wages of employees unable to work, until March. 

Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, announced that he was self-isolating after coming into contact with someone who has coronavirus.

Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said people were allowed to leave their homes to travel abroad for assisted dying during the lockdown.

Last Saturday, when Boris Johnson announced the lockdown, Sir Patrick presented a series of slides on the outlook for the pandemic including the now-disputed 4,000 deaths graph.

On Tuesday, Sir Patrick and Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, were questioned by the Commons science and technology committee about the use of the modelling scenarios which MPs said had frightened the public.

Sir Patrick said he “regretted” it if he had not made it clear that these scenarios were models rather than projections and were “not as reliable” as the six-week forecasts he had also presented. He told MPs: “The right graphs to focus on are the six-week medium-term forward projections,” describing the slides on hospital admissions and deaths as the ones “that are important”.

Amid bad-tempered discussions about the long-term scenarios, Prof Whitty said he had “never used anything beyond six weeks in anything I have ever said to any minister on this issue”.

But an addendum to the published slides has revealed that these forecasts contained significant mistakes. A note added to the presentation said: “Plots on slides 4 and 5 have been amended after an error was found in the interquartile ranges for SPI-M [Sage’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling] medium term projections.

“This does not affect the insights that can be taken from this analysis.”

Although the central forecasts remain unchanged, forecasting 750 deaths a day and 4,290 hospital admissions by December 8, the upper end of the range has been revised down. Instead of 1,500 deaths, it suggests an upper figure of 1,010, while the top range for daily hospital admissions falls from around 9,000 to 6,190.

The changes significantly alter the appearance of the graphs, meaning the shading no longer suggests that deaths in the weeks up to December 8 could dwarf those of the first wave.

Prof Heneghan, the director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford University, raised concerns that incorrect data was “systematically” being used to drive the country into lockdown, saying: “It really worries me that, on matters that are this important, we are finding that the data is absolutely riddled with errors.

“I don’t know if the data is being rushed through or if what we are seeing is bias being introduced, but what we are seeing looks systematic. All the mistakes are consistently in one direction, so you have to ask whether it is being done on purpose to suit the policies, like lockdown, they want to impose.”

He urged ministers to be more transparent, saying revisions to data should not be “snuck out” and adding: “We’re in an era where public compliance is essential to public health, and in due course we will need people to take the vaccine. That requires people to trust the Government.”

The SPI-M projections, dated October 28, were a central part of the weekend presentation, with Sir Patrick and and Prof Whitty since emphasising that they were more reliable than long-term scenarios.

SPI-M includes Professor Jonathan Van Tam, the deputy chief medical officer, Professor Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College London and Professor John Edmunds, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, all of whom have advocated national action (watch Boris Johnson giving an update after the start of the national lockdown in the video below).

At a Downing Street briefing on Thursday, Sir Simon Stevens, the head of the NHS, said services were now dealing with the equivalent of 22 hospitals of Covid patients.

Amid growing rows over the figures presented in the case for lockdown, he contrasted the NHS data with other charts, saying: “Those are facts. Those are not projections, forecasts, speculation. Those are the patients in the hospital today. 

“And as we think about the next few weeks, in a sense we already know what is likely to happen, because today’s infection is the intensive care order book for a fortnight’s time.”

Earlier, Professor Yvonne Doyle, the director of health protection at Public Health England (PHE), defended the models used to justify the second national lockdown, saying they were “presented to aid planning”.

The Office for Statistics Regulation criticised the Government for a lack of transparency over publication of data about the pandemic amid concern that it failed to publish the data sources, models or assumptions on the case for lockdown for several days after the televised presentation, only doing so the night before MPs voted on the restrictions.

In a damning statement, it said: “The use of data has not consistently been supported by transparent information being provided in a timely manner. As a result, there is potential to confuse the public and undermine confidence in the statistics.”

A Government spokesman said: “The main consensus projection remains unaltered. The data still clearly shows, and the consensus remains, that without intervention we are likely to breach the first wave of hospital admissions and deaths in a matter of weeks.”

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