There are crucial gaps in the data available to map England’s response to Covid-19, according to researchers who have developed an interactive, visual tool condensing disparate streams of publicly available information to help the public make sense of the numbers.
The one-stop dashboard – developed by an interdisciplinary research team from University College London (UCL) – found substantial shortcomings in the quality, consistency and availability of reliable figures required to manage the pandemic.
For example, there is no routine data collected on how well requests for 14-day isolation are adhered to, rendering it essentially impossible to know how effective NHS Test and Trace is in reducing transmission. The number of people isolating with symptoms in England is also unknown, and there is also no data on those who need or are receiving any kind of support, the researchers said.
“We don’t know what percentage of people with symptoms and a positive test are actually isolating for the full amount of time, and we don’t know that about their contacts and that is really important because, if people aren’t isolating, then it’s kind of window dressing,” said UCL professor Christina Pagel, part of the team behind the dashboard.
Less than 20% of people in England fully self-isolate when asked to do so, documents from the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies revealed in September.
Another key issue, Pagel said, is the lack of granular local data from NHS Test and Trace. “It has been suggested that in the north-west they’ve been reaching fewer contacts and fewer cases and that’s obviously really important,” she said. “That kind of regional variation is something we would really like to include not just in test which we have, but also in contact tracing.”
The publicly available data used in the dashboard comes from sources such as Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the NHS, but some statistics are published daily and some weekly.
“Our dashboard can continually update – in order to illuminate how these pieces of data should be viewed in the context of the whole pandemic,” said UCL professor Deenan Pillay, one of its developers.
“What we’re also trying to do is uncover the inner logic of why test and trace and isolate are important,” he added.
“I think the way the pandemic has developed and the response within the UK, it’s easy for people to become … disenchanted with continual requests for instance, isolation, without the continual appreciation of why this is important.
“I think we should trust people with data,” Pagel added. “If we ended up with thousands of armchair statisticians then that would be great. I feel like our problem as a population is people are not engaging with data, not engaging with evidence enough and if we can encourage that then we should go for it.”
One thing she noted when looking at the bigger picture was the sheer number of cases being lost because of the focus on testing symptomatic people. “It kind of just highlights the fact that it’s something that we should consider.”