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The curious case of the NHS England CEO and the misleading use of data on hospital patient numbers is causing disquiet in Whitehall. Amanda Pritchard, appointed earlier this year, claimed in an article for the Health Service Journal this week that the NHS has 14 times as many patients with the virus than at this point last year.

Except, that is plain wrong, or at least misleading. In seeking to remind readers that the NHS is under pressure, Pritchard has unintentionally imperilled trust.

On 5 November, there were around 10,000 admissions, making the current figure 1.6 times lower, not 14 times higher, than claimed. As Full Fact, the fact-checking service, explained: the NHS chief was referring to August. “NHS England told us Ms Pritchard was not talking about data from ‘this time last year’ but data comparing August 2021 compared to August 2020.”

The original and wrong claim was leapt on by certain media outlets. It played into a doom-laden narrative that the situation is terrible on Covid and getting worse, when actually the numbers are – as of now – heading in the right direction. The pandemic is becoming endemic and doctors even report that symptoms are becoming harder to disentangle from colds and flu. At this rate, barring a disastrous turn, Christmas will not be cancelled and life is returning.

Yet, Sky, ITV and the i all reported the Pritchard claim and did not challenge it in the slightest. All have since either corrected or deleted their articles because if Pritchard’s maths were correct, there would be 150,000 Covid patients in hospital – a frankly absurd number that could not be accurate.

Ed Conway, economics editor and Sky’s data maestro, admitted that “we don’t always get this stuff right” but said it “doesn’t help when it comes from such a senior public figure” in Pritchard.