Official government death figures have been paused from publication while an investigation is carried out – E+
Nearly 10 per cent of coronavirus deaths reported by Public Health England (PHE) were not related to Covid-19, the body has admitted.
The Department of Health has been urgently reviewing the way in which it records deaths after Oxford University noticed in July that former coronavirus patients were being included in mortality figures even if they had recovered and then died of something else.
On Wednesday, the true extent of the problem emerged when PHE published a report showing that 3,664 people who had been included in 40,160 English coronavirus deaths did not have Covid-19 on their death certificate.
It is also now clear that England’s death rate has been diminishing far faster than official figures showed. Since the middle of June, at least half the reported deaths have not been due to coronavirus and have now been excluded from official figures.
Experts said the figures explained why the daily death toll for England remained stubbornly high throughout June and July, in contrast to the other devolved nations and despite the Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures showing that deaths were rapidly falling.
The numbers have now been adjusted, and it now appears that England may have had its first Covid-19 death-free day on August 6.
The issue has arisen in England because, unlike Scotland and Wales, the death data does not have a 28-day cut-off point.
On Wednesday, the Government announced that it would be publishing the number of deaths that occurred within 28 days and 60 days in its daily total after the four UK chief medical officers said a consistent measure should be adopted.
Official Government death figures have been paused since July 17 while an investigation was carried out.
Professor John Newton, the director of health improvement at Public Health England, said: “The way we count deaths in people with Covid-19 in England was originally chosen to avoid underestimating deaths caused by the virus in the early stages of the pandemic.
“Our analysis of the long-term impact of the infection now allows us to move to new methods, which will give us crucial information about both recent trends and overall mortality burden due to Covid-19.”
The new data showed that the percentage of people included in the figures who did not die of coronavirus rose dramatically if they died after 28 days of being diagnosed with the disease.
For people who died within 29 to 42 days of having a coronavirus test, roughly 27 per cent did not have Covid-19 listed on their death certificate. But that rose to 70 per cent for those who died within 60 days of testing positive.
Keith Neal, emeritus professor of the epidemiology of infectious diseases at the University of Nottingham, said that, if the data error had not been spotted, the number of deaths of Covid-19 survivors would have continued to increase and made tracking the epidemic impossible.
“The previous measure of always being a Covid-19 death even if recovered was unscientific,” he said. “As Covid-19 deaths fall, the number of recovered patients, particularly the very old and those with severe underlying conditions, are now dying from these conditions and not Covid-19.
“These non Covid-19 deaths in survivors would become an ever increasing percentage of the England Covid-19 deaths being reported. It had become essentially useless for epidemiological monitoring.”
The Government’s previous estimate for UK deaths as of Tuesday was 46,526, but the Department of Health said that, as of Wednesday, the number of all deaths in patients testing positive for Covid-19 in the UK within 28 days was just 41,329.
Some deaths have not yet been registered and are not included in the new analysis.