No reliable way to track Covid pandemic in UK after PHE data row, says expert

Health Secretary Matt Hancock delivers a statement on the government's actions on coronavirus in the House of Commons - PA
Health Secretary Matt Hancock delivers a statement on the government’s actions on coronavirus in the House of Commons – PA
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter ..
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter ..

The Department of Health’s decision to stop publishing coronavirus death figures, following the Public Health England data row, will make it harder to keep track of the pandemic, experts have warned.

Professor Paul Hunter of the University of East Anglia, said it was a ‘worrying development’ that DHSC had paused reporting daily deaths after it emerged last week that PHE was recording deaths as coronavirus even if people had recovered from the condition and died of something else.

Professor Carl Heneghan, at Oxford University, and Prof Loon Yoke of the University of East Anglia, who discovered the statistical anomaly, warned it was impossible for anyone to ever recover from Covid-19.

Matt Hancock the Health Secretary has launched an urgent inquiry and the DHSC has stopped publishing daily figures amid fears they were widely over-estimating the number of people dying from the disease.

However Prof Hunter said the figures were useful for tracking the pandemic even if they were slightly inaccurate, and pausing them risked losing track of cases.

“The value of the existing system is not in total numbers but as an indicator of the progress of the pandemic by showing whether deaths are increasing or decreasing,” he said.

“That these data have stopped being cited by DHSC at a time when evidence is mounting that the decline in cases of Covid-19 may have stalled is a worrying development.  

“If death data does start being published again but with a different definition then it will not be possible to compare the new data with the old data and make the situation appear better than it is.

“In my view we should continue to publish the death statistics as currently made available, otherwise we may miss important signs of a re-emerging epidemic.  

“We can always argue about the exact number of deaths later, but what is important now is consistency in reporting to enable a clear picture of whether the epidemic is starting to get away from us again.”

Unlike in Scotland and Wales, where there is a 28-day cut-off, anyone who has ever tested positive for coronavirus in England will count as a Covid death when they die, even if that is months later and from an obviously unrelated cause.

However the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at the University of Oxford calculated that there are approximately 80,000 recovered Covid-19 patients currently in the community. 

Many are elderly and would naturally be expected to die of age or other illnesses in the next few months or years, and would automatically be added to the coronavirus figures, even if they were hit by a bus.

PHE estimates that of the 40,528 Covid-19 deaths reported by 15th July, counting only those who died within 28 days, would include 35,664 deaths and exclude 4,149 deaths in people with laboratory confirmed infection.

On Sunday, the UK’s National Statistician Professor Sir Ian Diamond, argued that the PHE death figures had ‘aimed to look at trends over time’ not be an accurate reflection of deaths.

He said that if people wanted to know the accurate data on deaths they should go to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) which publishes death registrations, but is unhelpful for judging progress in real time. 

When asked on Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday, if the PHE data was fit for purpose Sir Ian said: “It’s really important to recognise that different statistics are used for different things and so the PHE data are basically aimed to look at trends over time.

“If you want to know the accurate data on deaths my recommendation is to go to the ONS data.

“We believe very firmly, as does everyone, that the very best person to take a decision around what’s the cause of death is the medical practitioner who is there at the time.

“Someone who has Covid but then gets run over by a bus – it is inconceivable a medical practitioner is going to say the cause is Covid-19.”

Prof Hunter said it would probably be impossible to ever get a true picture of how many people had died from coronavirus in Britain

“The concept that there is an exact number of people who have died from Covid-19 and that this is actually measurable is, in my view, a myth,” he added. 

“Death certification is not an exact science and is based on clinical judgement of the medical practitioner certifying the death. 

Early in the epidemic it is likely that many deaths in the community from Covid-19 were not diagnosed as such and were not included on the death certificate due to the lack of availability of testing.”