ONS oh noes | Financial Times

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Writing about corrections is dangerous territory for journalists. Still, this one from the Office for National Statistics, added today, drew audible oofs from Alphaville Towers:

The difference the first point makes is striking . ..

Before

After

. . . turning the takeaway from “wow that’s striking, maybe there are lessons we can learn about Britain’s Productivity Puzzle™️ from the change in working patterns since Covid hit” to “oh”.

But remarkably, this apologia still manages to underplay how big the gaffe was.

Here’s the correction:

the previous version suggested that the UK output per hour worked in 2021 (excluding Japan) had the fastest growth of the G7 countries. This has now been corrected to the second slowest.

Here’s the original version:

With the easing of lockdown restrictions across countries, output per hour worked growth was positive for all G7 nations in 2021, with the UK experiencing the largest year-on-year increase (22%).

22 per cent growth!!! Seems a little strong, non?

Well, yes. Here’s the updated version (our emphasis):

With the easing of lockdown restrictions across countries, output per hour worked growth was negative for Canada (5.7%), France (1.5%), Italy (1.3%) and the UK (1.8%), but positive for Germany (0.9%) and the United States (1.2%) in 2021.

💀

First things first: if the response to a tweet by FT economic editor Chris Giles noting this correction is anything to go by, some people are fully ready to pretend the (wrong) initial release somehow underpinned UK economic policy.

Without wanting to get all 🤓 FTAV Fact Check Team 🤓 about this: it obviously did not.

Sure, it got some pickup: the Guardian live blog picked it up, and the Times had a write-up. The Sunday Times’s David Smith wrote it up (in a piece that probably survives the correction).

Less fortunate was the Daily Mail’s City editor Alex Brummer, whose column from that week (print title: “It’s time our Doomsters in Chief stopped talking the UK down”) included this paragraph:

The good tidings continue. The Office for National Statistics reported this week that, in 2021, UK output per hour worked ‘had the fastest growth of the G7 countries’. Not something likely to lead BBC headlines.

Unfortunately for Brummer, it looks like those BBC headline writers dodged a bullet this time.

Anyway . . . the ONS publishes a lot of stuff. With no offence to the authors of this release, a review of 2021 productivity growth is not one of the most important ones.

Still, it’s a bit weird. After all, evidence elsewhere has already suggested recent UK productivity growth has been fairly meh. Here’s the, uh, ONS on that (from November):

— Output per hour worked in Quarter 3 (July to Sept) 2022 was 2.0% above its pre-coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic levels, reflective of 0.7% growth in gross value added (GVA) and a 1.2% fall in the number of hours worked.

— Relative to pre-coronavirus pandemic levels, output per worker grew by 0.9%, with growth driven by a 0.7% increase in GVA and a decrease of 0.2% in the number of workers.

Note that this edition of calculation used gross value added (GVA) rather than gross domestic product, as employed in the international comparisons above. So the UK profiles here would never have lined up perfectly — but they were likely to be show a roughly similar trend. Not . . . 22 per cent growth!

Tl;dr:

(P.s. Applying Sod’s Law, we fully anticipate this article needing a correction.)