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PHE-reported Covid-19 deaths ‘too low’ as death count nears 50,000

Deaths from Covid-19 may be one-fifth higher than reported by Public Health England (PHE) throughout the coronavirus pandemic, experts have pointed out.

The latest data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) showed that nearly 50,000 people had lost their lives – nearly 10,000 less than the Government count.

This comes despite news last week that PHE may have been incorrectly classifying some deaths as due to Covid-19, prompting health secretary Matt Hancock to launch an urgent review and pausing daily publication of deaths.

PHE had been counting deaths of all patients who had tested positive for Covid-19 in their statistics, even if they had recovered and died from unrelated causes.

But despite this, PHE has consistently througout the coronavirus outbreak recorded lower daily death rates than the ONS – which counts all deaths where Covid-19 is mentioned on the death certificate, but without the patient necessarily having had a test.

According to Professor Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of applied statistics at the Open University, ONS figures have been as much as 2,300 a week higher than PHE figures throughout the pandemic.

He said: ‘While the anomaly with the PHE figures certainly needs attention, it’s definitely not the case that the overall number of deaths across the pandemic so far has been wildly exaggerated by the PHE issue. Indeed, across the whole pandemic so far, ONS data shows that the PHE totals are considerably too low.’

He added: ‘During the height of the pandemic wave, testing was much less available than it is now, particularly for people who were not in hospital. So the doctor certifying the death may well have decided, reasonably and correctly, on the basis of a patient’s symptoms, that they very probably had Covid-19, even if they could not actually be tested, and so Covid-19 would be on the death certificate, and the person would be counted in the ONS Covid-19 related death figures.’

The latest totals recorded by the ONS report 48,532 Covid-19 related deaths in England, while PHE recorded 40,066 deaths.

According to Professor Carl Heneghan, director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, and Professor of evidence-based medicine at the University of Oxford, the inaccuracies in these data sets are unacceptable.

He stated: ‘We should be focusing on the data that matters: admissions to hospital; critical care bed occupancy and the deaths from active infection to guide our current responses.’

Based on the latest ONS statistics, he added, ‘Overall, the numbers of registered deaths are highly reassuring and show that the current risks from Covid are very low.’

Recent reports from the ONS suggest Covid-19 deaths in care homes are decreasing across the UK.