Unreliable Reported Covid-19 Case Numbers Over The Next 3 Weeks

Reported Covid-19 case numbers are going to be very unreliable over the next three weeks, with big daily changes both up and down. The reasons for this are to do with how the system works, not because the number of infected people is actually going up and down as shown by the published results.

We wanted to tell you this now because people are going to draw false conclusions from the daily totals over Christmas and New Year. Deniers and professional misinformation outfits will seize on every downturn in published numbers as a sign that the pandemic is over or that the modellers were wrong or both. Even well-meaning people might be fooled by what looks like drops in the number of infected people. We wanted to give you the information you need to fight disinformation and make sure people do not drop their guard against catching Covid-19.

These are the three big reasons why daily figures are likely to be unreliable:

  1. The UK can only process a fixed number of PCR test samples every day. If more samples arrive than the labs can cope with, they get queued. This has already happened a few times in the pandemic but is now likely to happen every day, as so many people catch Covid and send in a test sample. This means that the daily totals will be artificially ‘capped’ on the day they are first published. Over the next few days, as the backlog of samples is worked-through by the labs, the daily totals will be revised upward. However, the bigger revised totals will not be published except to people who bother downloading the data.
  2. The laboratory test system depends on people: healthcare staff to take samples in hospitals, post workers to collect and deliver samples, lab workers to process them and scientists and analysts to publish them. When these people get sick and are off work, as they will be during the Omicron wave, the whole system slows down. This leads to even longer delays between the tests being taken and the results being published.
  3. While it might seem obvious, Christmas and New Year includes a lot of public holidays when post isn’t collected or delivered and many people take holidays. This means enormous delays will happen in publishing the results of tests. Already, published tests are always lower on Sundays and Mondays because of delays in processing samples over the weekend. This will happen on a much bigger scale over the Christmas and New Year period.

BuDS will continue to give you weekly updates and explain carefully why the figures look the way they do. Look out for our weekly risk assessments – you can see them on social media and at our website here: https://buds.org.uk/category/our-work/iag-covid-19/risk-assessments/.

Remember, if you don’t know what to say to oppose misinformation, you can always ask us for information, or tag us in the offending post.