Urgent review into England's covid-19 death stats after academics discover 'flaw'

17 July 2020, 10:25

Matt Hancock has launched a review into England's covid-19 death stats
Matt Hancock has launched a review into England's covid-19 death stats. Picture: PA

By Asher McShane

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has ordered an urgent review into the way Public Health England records coronavirus deaths after an apparent flaw in the system was uncovered by a group of academics.

Researchers found "statistical flaws" in the way deaths from Covid-19 are reported in England.

The way Public Health England (PHE) calculates the figures means England's deaths from coronavirus always look far worse than any other part of the UK, they said.

In a blog entitled "Why no-one can ever recover from Covid-19 in England - a statistical anomaly", Professors Yoon Loke, from the University of East Anglia, and Carl Heneghan, from the University of Oxford, said more robust data is needed.

They argue that England's death statistics show that PHE only looks at whether a person has ever tested positive and whether they are still alive at a later date.

So the death of someone who loses their life from a reason completely unrelated to coronavirus could still be recorded as a covid-19 death.

"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," they said.

"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.

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"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."

The experts said this is the reason why PHE figures "vary substantially from day to day".

They also said that around 80,000 recovered patients in the community are continuing to be monitored by PHE for the daily death statistics, even though many are elderly and may die of something else.

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

"One reasonable approach would be to define community Covid-related deaths as those that occurred within 21 days of a Covid positive test result.

"In summary, PHE's definition of the daily death figures means that everyone who has ever had Covid at any time must die with Covid too.

"So, the Covid death toll in Britain up to July 2020 will eventually exceed 290k, if the follow-up of every test-positive patient is of long enough duration."

The pair said the issue relates to England because Scotland and Northern Ireland use a 28-day cut-off.

On the Government death statistics website for England, the issue is acknowledged, saying: "Deaths are counted where a lab-confirmed positive coronavirus test result is reported in any setting.

"This means that not all deaths reported here are caused by coronavirus."

Other data on deaths - regarded by many experts as more reliable - is put out by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).