Lack of testing means we will never know true coronavirus death toll, Sage professor says

Sir David said the lack of clarity could have been remedied if the Government implemented

Sir David said the lack of clarity could have been remedied if the Government implemented random sample testing early on
Sir David said the lack of clarity could have been remedied if the Government implemented random sample testing early on
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter

Britain will never know how many people died from coronavirus because there was not enough testing from the outset, a professor who sits on the Government’s Sage advisory board has said. 

Sir David Spiegelhalter, professor of understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge, said the UK was “operating in the dark for so long” at the beginning of the pandemic.

The lack of clarity could have been remedied if the Government implemented random sample testing early on to get a clearer understanding of what was unfolding, Sir David said during an online lecture held by the New Scientist.

Delays to routine surgery and postponed cancer treatments due to the lockdown will also make it hard to examine the true scale of casualties from the pandemic, he added. 

Asked how long it will take to get an accurate statistical picture of the impact the virus has had on the UK, Sir David responded: “Never. We will never really know exactly what has gone on. 

“We know we have done badly, we have had this big spike and you can’t disguise that. I think the best way is to look at excess deaths rather than what was on a death certificate. 

“But even then, what causes excess deaths? How many people who died in care homes actually had covid? We don’t know. How many of the people dying at home would have lived longer had they gone to hospital? We don’t know and we won’t know. 

“And in the future – as we go through the rest of the summer, winter and next year – how many extra case deaths [will there be] from cancer and from delayed surgery in the NHS due to the lockdown? 

“It will be hard to deconstruct this in the future and we will never be able to come up with an absolutely firm idea.”

Sir David said that the lack of testing from the offset affected the overall picture given to statisticians and modellers of what was happening in the community.

“We were operating in the dark for so long without knowing how many people in the country had it,” he said.

“If we had random sampling of testing much earlier on we would have had a much better idea of what was going on.”

Sir David also echoed an idea previously suggested by the Prime Minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, that civil servants and politicians should be made to undergo statistical training. 

In January Mr Cummings wrote a blog post calling for “misfits with odd skills”, including data scientists and mathematicians, to form part of his new vision for the civil service.

Sir David said understanding data is now an “essential skill” in the wake of the pandemic and that the Government’s daily coronavirus briefings “did not really help people understand what was going on”.

“If data literacy is going to be taught in schools, it should be taught to professionals,” he said. “Not just politicians, but civil servants as well. All I am doing now is channelling Cummings, who has been saying this for a long time anyway. 

“These are essential skills and this Covid-19 epidemic has shown that all the more clearly.”

Responding to questions on whether Britain will experience a second spike, Sir David said: “I am not a public health person. There could be. But I do believe if there are signs of that happening then it’s not going to be like we have seen because we won’t let that happen. We know we can stop it.”

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