The government has defended its use of Covid statistics after data shown in a presentation to justify the current lockdown in England had to be revised.
A chart presented at Saturday’s No 10 briefing suggested a worse-case figure of up to 1,500 deaths a day by December 8, well above April’s 1,000 peak.
This has now been adjusted down to 1,010 a day, after an error was found.
But Michael Gove said action had to be taken to defend the NHS amid rising hospital admissions.
“The statistics are clear – those who want to deny them, well they can,” said the Cabinet Office minister in a video conference after a British-Irish council summit.
“But the statistics are clear, we have to defend our NHS, the number of people going into our hospitals are rising, no one wants to take the steps we have but they are there for a reason.”
Conservative MPs opposed to the second lockdown in England, which came into force on Thursday, have questioned the reliability of the modelling used by the government to bolster its case.
The UK’s statistics regulator says there needs to be more transparency about the data used to make predictions after it emerged figures cited at last weekend’s Downing Street briefing were out of date and over-estimated deaths.
At the briefing, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance presented a graph outlining a range of projections for the Covid death toll over the next month, including one from Public Health England and Cambridge University suggesting it could rise as high as 4,000 a day.
He also cited two other graphs illustrating “medium-term” projections from the government’s advisory committee SPI-M for hospitalisations and deaths up to 8 December.
On Friday, the Daily Telegraph reported that some of the details in the graphs had since been changed.
The Government Science Service said an an error had been found in the “interquartile ranges” for the projections. but that it “did not affect the insights” that can be taken from the analysis.
“The main consensus projection remains unaltered,” it said.
“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.”
The errors in the Chief Scientific Adviser’s slides all give the impression that the worst case scenario is more serious than the data support.
But the government’s case for action does not rest solely on projections of a worst case scenario. They argue that the data right now make the case.
Coronavirus hospital admissions are currently doubling roughly every three weeks.
Deaths are doubling every fortnight, with just over 2,000 reported in the last week. That growth is slower than it was in September and October, but it is still growth.
So in the near future, the expectation, not the worst case, is that the daily number deaths will rise and pressure on hospitals will increase.
Business Minister Nadhim Zahawi told Sky News the government would “strive to improve our graphs and presentations” but the threat facing the NHS from the rise in cases was “very clear”.
In a separate interview with the BBC, he said the figures for Covid patients being hospitalised outlined by NHS boss Simon Stevens on Thursday had been stark.
“Let’s put aside the modelling because that’s precisely what they are – models. Let’s look at the evidence,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today.
“Four weeks ago people in hospital suffering from Covid was 2,600. Four weeks later, it is over 12,000 and rising. That is indisputable.”
Asked about the government’s use of data earlier this week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson acknowledged that the “projections vary widely” and there was also a “political judgment” to be made in order to take into account economic factors.
But Sir David Spiegelhalter, one of the most respected statisticians in the country, said he had been “very unimpressed” by some of the data presented on Saturday, particularly the one including the 4,000 forecast.
“It was a frightening graph and presented these headline figures of 4,000 deaths a day which is terrifying,” he told Politics Live on Tuesday.
“But there are a number of problems. We did not have the sources of these projections and if you look at the small print, you see they were done at the beginning of October…And at least one of the groups have revised their projections since.”