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More than 5,000 deaths have been removed from England’s grim coronavirus tally after a data glitch meant the government had over-counted. 

Public Health England (PHE) had been recording Covid-19 deaths where a positive test had occurred at any point, meaning a patient could never be classed as having recovered.

The government will now move to publishing deaths as related to Covid-19 only when the loss of life was within 28 days of diagnosis.

It means that some 5,376 deaths were counted as due to Covid-19 when it should not have been recorded as a factor, the review ordered by health secretary Matt Hancock has found. 

The new working total for the UK is 41,329, down from 46,628, the figure published by PHE yesterday. That is despite 77 more deaths – using the new methodology – recorded over the last 24 hours.

Professor John Newton, director of health improvement at Public Health England, said: “The way we count deaths in people with Covid-19 in England was originally chosen to avoid underestimating deaths caused by the virus in the early stages of the pandemic.

“Our analysis of the long-term impact of the infection now allows us to move to new methods, which will give us crucial information about both recent trends and overall mortality burden due to Covid-19.”

A new set of figures showing the number of deaths that occur within 60 days of a positive test will also be published in England, it added.

Separate figures published by the UK’s statistics agencies show there have been 56,800 deaths registered in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.

Hancock had ordered a review after an Oxford University study unearthed the  irregularity in a paper entitled “Why no one can ever recover from Covid-19 in England – a statistical anomaly”.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock arrives in Downing Street

“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,” it said. 

Government sources at the time said the approach essentially meant “you could have been tested positive in February, have no symptoms, then be hit by a bus in July and you’d be recorded as a Covid death”. 

The revised working total is still likely to be a significant underestimate, however, as it only includes people who have actually tested positive for the disease. Many who died, particularly in the early stages of the pandemic, had not had a test and Covid-19 was diagnosed based on their symptoms.

The UK still has the fifth highest number of deaths due to coronavirus in the world.

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