Fact check: are the NHS chief's Covid claims correct?

9 November 2021

2:08 AM

9 November 2021

2:08 AM

The seven-day rolling average suggests Covid cases peaked around 23 October and have been in decline for almost two weeks. Despite this, there are frequent claims that Britain’s Covid rates are continuing to skyrocket. So what’s going on?

As always with the virus, every shift in the data must be taken with a pinch of salt; there’s always a chance things could take a turn for the worse. But some data is set in stone: that is, the virus’s trajectory last year and how it compares to what’s happening now.

Today, a strange update was given by Amanda Pritchard, the new head of NHS England. In a bid to encourage people to take up vaccines (both for Covid and flu), Pritchard said ‘we have had 14 times the number of people in hospital with Covid-19 than we saw this time last year’.

It doesn’t take much number-crunching to see that this statement is simply incorrect. On 5 November (the most recent day we have data for), Covid patients in England occupied 7,072 hospital beds. On the same date last year, they occupied nearly 11,000. The same story emerges if you look at daily hospital admissions: 807 Covid-positive patients were admitted on 3 November this year – over 400 patients fewer than the 1,246 admitted on 3 November last year.

According to the i, NHS England has clarified that Pritchard was referring to August’s figures – which it claims are the latest data sets available – not November’s.

It is indeed the case that Covid hospital admissions and bed occupancy were higher this August than last August: it is also the case that the number of patients in hospital hovered around or below Sage’s most optimistic scenario for hospitalisations after reopening. Furthermore, this is a comparison from three months ago that does not reflect the situation now. Thanks to the vaccines, we are nowhere near surpassing last year’s hospitalisation figures – and are notably below them.

Perhaps the biggest issue with the clarification, however, is that hospital admissions for August are by no means the latest set of data available. NHS England’s claim that these are the latest comparable figures appears to rest on a technicality. This is explained (somewhat) by a piece by Pritchard, published in the HSJ: when highlighting how the health service has been juggling various demands, she refers to a variety of data (including around diagnostic tests, elective surgeries, and Covid-19 hospital cases), some of which only holds figures up until August.

It’s bad timing for such sloppy mistakes to be made. With all eyes back on the Covid graphs again, mistakes like this from NHS bosses create even more tension between the health service and the public, as the debate about potentially restricting our freedoms emerges once again.<//>

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