News | Published July 18 2020

Health secretary orders review into Covid-19 death data

Health secretary Matt Hancock has ordered an urgent review into how daily coronavirus death figures are calculated in England, following revelations that the current counting methods may have included people who had contracted the virus and recovered some months before they died.

According to official figures, 45,119 deaths have been attributed to Covid-19 across the UK. However, this death toll may be inaccurate.

A government source told Sky News that Public Health England [PHE] used a calculation method which included people in the daily Covid-19 death tally even if they had been previously diagnosed with the virus and died later of unrelated causes.

Other constituent countries of the UK are thought to use a methodology which accounts for those who die within 28 days of contracting the virus.

The review will look to resolve the issue and establish the extent to which it could change the overall UK death tally.

The University of Oxford’s Professor Carl Heneghan co-authored a recent article with Professor Yoon Loke of the University of East Anglia which described the “statistical anomaly” that suggested “no one can ever recover from Covid-19 in England”. It was published by Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine [CEBM].

The article reads: "It seems that PHE regularly looks for people on the NHS database who have ever tested positive, and simply checks to see if they are still alive or not.

"PHE does not appear to consider how long ago the Covid test result was, nor whether the person has been successfully treated in hospital and discharged to the community.

"Anyone who has tested Covid positive but subsequently died at a later date of any cause will be included on the PHE Covid death figures."

CEBM suggested that this statistical issue explains why death figures vary substantially each day, with 16 deaths having been reported in the UK from July 6, with 155 reported on July 7.

"By this PHE definition, no one with Covid in England is allowed to ever recover from their illness.

"A patient who has tested positive, but successfully treated and discharged from hospital, will still be counted as a Covid death even if they had a heart attack or were run over by a bus three months later."

It added that the PHE’s definition of daily Covid-19 deaths means that “everyone who has ever had Covid at any time must die with Covid” and suggested that PHE change tack and define Covid-related deaths as those that occur within three weeks of a positive diagnosis.

"We need correct and accurate statistics so we can really understand the trend - otherwise it's very difficult to know what's going on.

"It's time to fix this statistical flaw that leads to an over-exaggeration of Covid-associated deaths."

Public Health England’s Dr Susan Hopkins said that there was not an agreed method of tallying Covid-19 deaths.

She said: "In England, we count all those that have died who had a positive Covid-19 test at any point, to ensure our data is as complete as possible.

"We must remember that this is a new and emerging infection and there is increasing evidence of long-term health problems for some of those affected. Whilst this knowledge is growing, now is the right time to review how deaths are calculated."

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Authored by

Alexander Bridge-Wilkinson
Junior Editor
July 18 2020

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