Coronavirus death toll disputed after PHE accused of ‘exaggerating COVID-linked deaths’

Ellen Manning
·4-min read
A Rehab Support worker checks on patient notes as the first patients are admitted to the NHS Seacole Centre at Headley Court, Surrey, a disused military hospital, which has been converted during the coronavirus pandemic. Named in honour of Jamaican born nurse, Mary Seacole, the facility will help care for and support patients recovering from COVID-19 and who no longer need care in an acute hospital, or those who have COVID and can no longer cope with their symptoms at home.
Epidemiologist Prof Carl Heneghan said the way coronavirus deaths are recorded is flawed. (PA)

Matt Hancock has ordered an urgent review into how Public Health England (PHE) calculates daily coronavirus death figures after experts criticised “flaws” in the way they are recorded.

Concerns have been raised that the reported death toll in England appears so high in contrast to neighbouring countries because of flaws in the way PHE is compiling “out of hospital” death statistics, including anyone who has ever been diagnosed with COVID-19 — even if they did not necessarily die from the disease.

Epidemiologist Professor Carl Heneghan, director of the University of Oxford's Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine and Professor Yoon Loke, from the University of East Anglia, said the figures record people who have ever tested positive for coronavirus and then have died.

In a blog post on The Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine’s website, they said: “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.

“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.”

Public Health England defended its reporting, telling Yahoo News UK it had been right to include all deaths up until now because COVID-19 is a new infection and there is “increasing evidence of long term health problems for some of those affected”.

Dr Susan Hopkins, Public Health England Incident Director, welcomed the review, indicating the way England accounts for its death toll could soon change.

The professors said the system explains why PHE figures vary substantially from day to day.

They added: “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.”

Health secretary Matt Hancock is expected to order an urgent review into the situation, clarifying any confusion over coronavirus deaths.

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.”

Dr Susan Hopkins, Public Health England Incident Director, 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 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.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The Health Secretary has asked Public Health England to conduct an urgent review into the reporting of deaths statistics, aimed at providing greater clarity on the number of fatalities related to Covid-19 as we move past the peak of the virus.

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