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Fact Check-British health minister did not admit all pandemic deaths were overcounted

A remark made by British health minister Sajid Javid over the reliability of COVID-19 death rates has been misinterpreted by social media users who claim it is evidence that Javid admitted numbers have been consistently over-estimated.

At a Jan. 19 press conference, Javid was asked by a journalist whether the British public would need to accept the current rate of COVID-19 related deaths.

In his reply, Javid said the death rate varied day by day and had been falling on average, before adding that there was “something important” to also consider in relation to Omicron.

“We estimate that around 40 per cent of the people with COVID in hospital are there not because they’ve got COVID, but they happen to have COVID, so it’s what you might call an incidental infection,” he said.

“That’s almost double the percentage that we saw with Delta, and that’s important because the deaths that are being reported of people who were COVID-positive within 28 days of passing away, many of those people would not have necessarily died of COVID.”

Javid’s remarks were reported by Britain’s Daily Telegraph, which added that for the week ending Jan 7, the UK Health Security Agency had reported 1,282 deaths of people who died within 28 days of testing positive for coronavirus, while data from the same week from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed there were 992 death registrations with COVID-19 mentioned on the death certificate (here).

The ONS figure had risen to 1,023 at the time of publication (here). Notes on the ONS data explain that the figures are provisional and can be delayed by holiday periods.

The Daily Telegraph added that in earlier waves, the number of deaths reported by the ONS had been consistently higher than the figures for deaths within 28 days of a positive test. Reuters Fact Check has previously written about these two different ways of measuring coronavirus-related deaths (here and here).

On social media, users shared a screenshot of the article headline, which read: “High Covid death rates skewed by people who died from other causes, admits Sajid Javid.“

Many added comments to say that Javid’s remarks were evidence that COVID-19 deaths had been overcounted since the outset of the pandemic, without acknowledging Javid’s distinction between the Omicron and Delta waves.

Javid’s office could not immediately be reached for comment.

OMICRON AND COUNTING DEATHS

Professor Daniela De Angelis, Deputy Director of the MRC Biostatistics Unit at the University of Cambridge, told Reuters via email: “The definition of a COVID death as a death occurring within 28 days of a positive test reflected reasonably the numbers confirmed by a death certificate at the beginning of the pandemic. If anything, at the very beginning, the definition was undercounting the COVID deaths. Waiting for a death certificate takes time, so they adopted an approximate definition to have data available more promptly.

“Of course, as with any approximation, there will be some error and yes, there is a possibility that some people might have died of other causes. More recently, as the testing has increased substantially and more people have been found positive, it is possible that there is an overcount of the deaths. But the bulk of the deaths have occurred between April 2020 and January 2021, independently of Omicron, so I am not sure the overcounting is that big.”

Elizabeth Williamson, Professor of Biostatistics and Health Data Science at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), added that the high rates of infection associated with the Omicron variant would likely have had an impact on the counting of deaths within 28 days of a positive infection.

“The higher the prevalence of COVID in general, the higher the fraction of non-COVID-related deaths that will have this type of incidental positive test. So, in the current climate, with a lot of Omicron circulating, we’d expect the overcounting to be particularly pronounced using this method,” she told Reuters via email.

However, she also noted there would also be some undercounting as “some people will have COVID and eventually die of it after more than 28 days, and this measure misses those people”.

At the time of publication, the UK’s government dashboard shows a total 155,040 deaths within 28 days of a positive test have been recorded since the beginning of the pandemic. This compares to 176,813 deaths with COVID-19 on the death certificate.

A spokesperson for the ONS told Reuters by email: “Since the start of the pandemic, around nine in 10 deaths involving COVID-19 have been due to COVID-19. That means COVID has been the underlying cause of death (the disease or injury that initiated the train of events directly leading to death) for more than 140,000 people.

“Of course, the majority of people who died had pre-existing health conditions but that is the case for the majority of deaths, COVID or otherwise. The most common pre-existing conditions on death certificates for people who died from COVID were diabetes and asthma. They are conditions that, while serious, you would not normally expect to have as their underlying cause.”

VERDICT

Misleading. Sajid Javid was referring to the Omicron wave of COVID-19 when he remarked that deaths within 28 days of a positive test may not be an accurate reflection of the current death rate. In previous waves, the number of deaths within 28 days of a positive test has been lower than those in which COVID-19 appears on the death certificate.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our fact-checking work here.

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