Why coronavirus deaths are higher than the government is reporting

Ross McGuinness
·4-min read

An extra 40 deaths involving COVID-19 have been recorded as the UK changes the way it collects its coronavirus data.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said on Tuesday that there were 210 deaths in England and Wales involving COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, between 28 December last year and 20 March.

This compares to the 170 deaths recorded over the same period by the government using NHS figures, which include only those who died in hospitals.

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The data change will give a more accurate depiction of just how many people are dying – so far, NHS statistics have covered fatalities in hospitals only, raising questions over the accuracy of the death toll.

The ONS will release its weekly bulletin every Tuesday at 9.30am, and will cover deaths involving COVID-19 for the week that ended 11 days prior – for example, data for the week ending 20 March have been released on 31 March.

Of the deaths registered in that week, 103 mentioned coronavirus (COVID-19), the ONS said on Tuesday.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 30: A general view outside St Thomas Hospital on March 30, 2020 in London, England. The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has spread to many countries across the world, claiming over 30,000 lives and infecting hundreds of thousands more. (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)
The UK death toll from coronavirus has so far only included those who died in hospitals. (Getty Images)

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The figure of 210 deaths between 28 December and 20 March marks the first time the UK’s official total has comprised ONS figures, which include deaths in the community such as in care homes, since the outbreak began.

The 23% increase between the NHS statistics and the ONS figures indicates that current government figures do not depict a wholly accurate picture of the death toll.

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The difference between the coronavirus death figures published by the ONS and those from NHS England and Public Health Wales is because of different methods of counting and reporting, the ONS explained.

The ONS death figures are based on the number of deaths registered in England and Wales where COVID-19 was mentioned on the death certificate as "deaths involving COVID-19".

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This number includes all deaths, not just those in hospitals, although there is usually a delay of at least five days between a death occurring and registration.

Meanwhile the figures published by NHS England and Public Health Wales are for deaths only among hospital patients who have tested positive for COVID-19, but include deaths that have not yet been registered.

Screen grab of (left to right) Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Public Health England medical director Yvonne Doyle during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (COVID-19). (Photo by PA Video/PA Images via Getty Images)
The death toll released in the government's daily briefings has not been a fully accurate depiction of the impact of COVID-19. (PA Images via Getty Images)

The NHS statistics have been limited to people who tested positive for COVID-19, but the ONS figures will include cases such as those in care homes, where it is mentioned on death certificates as a suspected cause.

There have been concerns that, up to now, the official figures do not give a real-time snapshot of the number of deaths involving COVID-19 in the UK, nor is it an accurate reflection of exactly where the country is in the "curve" of the outbreak.

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On Sunday, deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries said there is a “time lag” in the number of deaths tallied up as officials firm up the numbers and speak to families.

Asked about disparities in figures at a Downing Street press conference, Dr Harries said: “We have to make sure that when we’re reporting the family is content and knows and all our data is absolutely accurate.”

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She added: “There is always a time lag for us to check and evaluate that the data across the system is linked.

“We do not want to be misreporting data and then having to correct it. The public would not have confidence if we were doing that.

“As we have sadly had to register more deaths, that time period takes longer.”

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