Daily covid death count could be scrapped

Anna Mikhailova
·3-min read
An investigation is set to take place over reports of inflated virus death toll figures. - PA
An investigation is set to take place over reports of inflated virus death toll figures. - PA
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter

The official Covid-19 daily death toll may never be brought back following an investigation into Public Health England's method of counting it, the Telegraph understands.

The conclusions of the review, which was ordered by Matt Hancock after it emerged officials were "over-exaggerating” deaths from the virus, are expected this week.

One expected recommendation would be to stop daily reporting altogether and move to a weekly official death toll instead, a government source said on Sunday night.

The review has been “looking at all options,” the source said.

On July 17, the Health Secretary asked PHE to urgently investigate the way daily death statistics had been reported, leading PHE to say it was “pausing” the daily release.

It came after Oxford University experts revealed a significant proportion of the daily out-of-hospital death toll relates to patients who recovered from the virus weeks or months earlier.

Under the previous system, anyone who has ever tested positive for the virus in England was automatically counted as a coronavirus death when they died, even if the death was from a car accident.

By contrast, Scotland and Wales operate a cut-off threshold of 28 days after a positive test, after which a death is not assumed to be virus-related.

The official data has continued to release data on cases where people have tested positive for the virus. As of Sunday, 310,825 people have tested positive for coronavirus, according to PHE.

PHE’s death count was prominently used in the daily Downing Street press conferences. It is understood that, once the review on its methodology is concluded, the official death figures will start being routinely published on Twitter and the government’s website.

Doing so on a weekly rather than daily basis could help improve accuracy for future death counts, but could also make it harder to draw comparisons in the event of a second wave of the virus.

Prof Carl Heneghan, director at Oxford's Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, has called for a cut-off period for the way the death toll is calculated in England of 21 days.

He said at the time the review was launched: "We think it's incredibly important, so you understand exactly what's going on, that you say these are the deaths that occurred within a certain time point, and then you can understand the trends and that will help the media report accurately to the public what's going on."

Meanwhile Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, reportedly holds the view that excess deaths are the best measure to use, which will be unaffected by the PHE review.

PHE had defended its previous approach saying there is "no World Health Organisation-agreed method" for recording deaths from coronavirus.

Dr Susan Hopkins, PHE’s incident director, has said: "Although it may seem straightforward, there is no WHO agreed method of counting deaths from Covid-19. In England, we count all those that have died who had a positive Covid-19 test at any point, to ensure our data are as complete as possible.”

PHE declined to comment ahead of the publication of the review.