Matt Hancock wants review into ‘statistical flaws’ of daily death figures

PUBLISHED: 11:03 17 July 2020 | UPDATED: 15:59 17 July 2020

Health Secretary Matt Hancock delivers a statement on the government's actions on coronavirus. Photograph: House of Commons/PA Wire

Health Secretary Matt Hancock delivers a statement on the government's actions on coronavirus. Photograph: House of Commons/PA Wire

Health secretary Matt Hancock has ordered an urgent review into how daily Covid-19 death figures are calculated by Public Health England (PHE).

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PHE’s figures feed into the daily death statistics published by the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC).

In a blog entitled “Why no-one can ever recover from Covid-19 in England - a statistical anomaly”, Professors Yoon Loke, from the University of East Anglia, and Carl Heneghan, from the University of Oxford, said more robust data is needed.

They argued that PHE looks at whether a person has ever tested positive and whether they are still alive at a later date.

This means anyone who has ever tested positive for Covid-19 and then dies is included in the death figures, even if they have died from something else.


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“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,” they said.

“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.

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“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.”

Professor Loke, one of the paper’s authors, said the method chosen by PHE would be “reasonably accurate” at the beginning of the pandemic when there were few people in the community who had survived the virus, but would become increasingly flawed as time went onm meaning around 1,000 may have been miscalculated.

But the BBC’s head of stats, Robert Cuffe, said “it doesn’t mean that most of England’s coronavirus deaths are counting errors”.

“Statisticians say it’s better to look at death registrations that pick up coronavirus cases that were never confirmed by a lab test.

“And when you look at those figures, or deaths from all causes, England still has one of the highest deaths tolls in Europe and leading developed economies in the pandemic, to date.”

Christina Pagel, a mathematician and professor of operational research at University College London (UCL) and a member of the Independent Sage group, said the way PHE calculates data could become an issue as time goes on but she did not believe there had been a “massive distortion”.

She added: “For Matt Hancock to suddenly be launching a massive inquiry is odd.

“The Department of Health website says quite clearly how each country is doing its death calculations, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to him. That’s what I find really odd.”

The Office for National Statistics - which does not use the same method of calculation - said that between 1 March and 30 June, there were 50,335 deaths involving Covid-19 in England and Wales. 46,736 of those deaths had Covid-19 assigned as the underlying cause of death.

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