An urgent review has been ordered into how the daily coronavirus death figures are calculated after it was claimed the current method does not take into account the fact that some people may have recovered from COVID-19 and died of a different cause.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has asked for the examination of Public Health England’s (PHE) data – said by researchers to include a “statistical anomaly” by which “no one can ever recover from COVID-19 in England”. The government’s own figures show there have been 45,119 COVID-19 associated deaths across the UK.
But that tally is feared to be inaccurate due to the way coronavirus deaths are recorded in England.
Explaining the “strange anomaly”, Sky News’ Rowland Manthorpe said: “Essentially, there is no way to recover, statistically. So, if I tested positive for COVID-19 today and then I got hit by a bus tomorrow, then COVID-19 would be listed as my cause of death.”
A government source confirmed that PHE’s current method of calculation means if a person was previously diagnosed with COVID-19 but subsequently died of unrelated causes, their death would still be counted as part of PHE’s daily coronavirus death tally.
In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, you are assumed to have recovered 28 days after a positive test.
The review ordered by Mr Hancock aims to sort out the issue and establish the impact on the UK’s overall death tally.
A recent article published by the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (CEBM), based at Oxford University, described the “statistical anomaly” which means that “no one can ever recover from COVID-19 in England”.
“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,” said the article’s authors Professor Yoon Loke, from the University of East Anglia, and Professor Carl Heneghan, from Oxford University.
“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.”
CEBM said this would explain why daily death figures vary substantially from day to day, with 16 new deaths reported in the UK on 6 July but then 155 reported the next day.
With more than 250,000 people having so far tested positive for coronavirus in England, CEBM suggested PHE’s definition of daily death figures means “that everyone who has ever had COVID at any time must die with COVID too”.
CEBM called for PHE to instead define COVID-related deaths as those that occur within three weeks of a positive test result for coronavirus.
“It’s time to fix this statistical flaw that leads to an over-exaggeration of COVID-associated deaths,” the authors of the article added.
The claimed anomaly in the PHE daily death figures would not affect the “excess” deaths figure provided by the Office for National Statistics.
Up to 3 July this year, the ONS has said there were almost 54,000 more deaths in England and Wales than the five-year average.
Dr Susan Hopkins, Public Health England’s 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.”
(Sky news, 17-07-2020)