UK to review potentially faulty England COVID-19 death data

A man rides a bike past a boarded up shop, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Bolton, Britain July 16, 2020. REUTERS/Phil Noble

LONDON (Reuters) - Health Minister Matt Hancock ordered a review into how England reports coronavirus deaths, after academics said the daily figures may include people who have died of other causes. The way Public Health England, a government agency responsible for managing infectious disease outbreaks, calculates the figures means they might look worse there than in other parts of the United Kingdom, according to two academics.

Britain has been the European country worst hit by the virus, with an official death toll of more 45,000. But the government has said international comparisons are misleading because countries record coronavirus deaths differently.

Yoon Loke, from the University of East Anglia, and Carl Heneghan, from the University of Oxford, said Public Health England cross-checks the latest notifications of deaths against a database of positive test results – so anyone who has tested positive can be recorded as dying from the virus.

“Matt Hancock is going to be doing a review of those statistics with Public Health England,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson told a media conference on Friday.

In a blog called “Why no-one can recover from COVID-19 in England”, the academics said that patients who tested positive for coronavirus, but are successfully treated, will still be counted as dying from the virus “even if they had a heart attack or were run over by a bus three months later”.

The academics said this was the reason why England’s death figures vary substantially from day to day.

The same approach is not used in other parts of the United Kingdom. In Scotland, there is a 28-day cut-off, after which a patient who has tested positive is not automatically considered to have died from the virus.

Office for National Statistics figures on excess deaths in Britain show more than 64,000 people have died than usual during the coronavirus pandemic. Many health experts focus on those rather than the official COVID-19 toll.

Reporting by Andrew MacAskill; editing by Michael Holden and John Stonestreet