Why are we still getting “administrative spikes” in Covid cases?

On Friday, the Irish Government announced more Covid restrictions. On Saturday, the figures in regard to new cases vindicated that decision. Or at least, they did, according to one of my elderly neighbours, who actually worried that the Government may have left it too late to shutter the pubs and the nightclubs.

My neighbour had watched RTÉ news, and saw the news that cases had gone through the roof, on Saturday. After a week or so of 4,000 odd cases a day, this news shocked her:

Not only was this a surge, it potentially warned of a historic surge on the way:

The third highest number of cases on record? Clearly, then, Government were right.

The problem, though, is this: On Sunday, the cases were back down again:

It is the nature of news, and public discourse, that the bigger, shocking, stories get more attention. Seven thousand new cases on Saturday sticks in the mind more than five thousand on Sunday.

The problem, of course, is that it is highly likely that this figure is misleading:

An “administrative spike” is essentially the new phrase for a backlog of cases being dumped on one day. That is to say, it is highly likely that Ireland did not actually record 7,000 odd covid positive tests on Saturday, but that Saturday’s numbers included a number of positive tests from the previous week or ten days, which were only added into the numbers.

This had the effect, though, of delivering a shocking spike, right as Government announced new restrictions. There will be those, of course, who see the hand of conspiracy in that kind of thing, and, though it is not my own view, it is hard to find a convincing argument to dissuade them from that.

The bigger point is that there really is no excuse, two years in, for this kind of distortion of the data.

There are several ways around it: Instead of reporting daily cases, we could look at more useful metrics, like the seven day average of confirmed cases. This gives a more rounded figure of the changes over time, and is much less sensitive to this kind of administrative spike. If the Government wants to continue using daily cases, it could simply ask that the backlog is spread out more evenly, or even reported separately: For example, they could report cases as “4000 cases recorded today, and the department also announced 3,000 additional cases not included in recent daily reports”.

Both of those methods would give the public a more rounded figure.

Coronavirus is a contentious story. And a frightening story. The public deserve accurate data, and to have absolute faith that the data is not being politicised and manipulated to shape public opinion.

Right now, if somebody tells you that it is being politicised, and used to manipulate public opinion, it is very hard to make a convincing argument to the contrary. Over the longer term, this is absolutely corrosive to trust in Government, and institutions.

They should stop it.




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