Matt Hancock orders urgent review into 'misleading' PHE coronavirus death statistics

Review comes after reports that all deaths of people who have tested positive for coronavirus are marked as Covid deaths, even if cause of death may be unrelated
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By John Johnston

17 Jul 2020

Matt Hancock has reportedly ordered an urgent review into claims Public Health England have published 'misleading' coronavirus death statistics.

The health secretary has reportedly ordered a probe into how England's Covid-19 death toll is calculated after a leading statistician published new research suggesting there is a "flaw" in how PHE record fatalities.

It follows confirmation from PHE that deaths may have included those who had tested positive from the illness but later died from other causes.

The analysis carried out by Dr Yoon K Loke and Dr Carl Heneghan – which they caution has not been peer reviewed – appears to show that PHE and NHS labs simply check whether someone who has previously tested positive for Coronavirus has died, but do not consider the cause of death or the length of time elapsed since their test.

They wrote: "By this PHE definition, no one with Covid in England is allowed to recover from their illness.

"A patient who has tested positive, but successfully treated and discharged from hospital, will still be counted as a Covid death even if they had a heart attack or were run over by a bus three months later."

The pair said they had conducted the research due to concerns over the "relentless daily toll" in England compared to neighbouring regions where the number of deaths has begun to drop.

The Department of Health and Social Care, which uses the PHE data for its announcements, have so far recorded 45,199 deaths from the illness, while the Office for National Statistics, which does not use the same counting method, have confirmed at least 50,698 deaths in England and Wales up to July 3.

But the academics highlighted that if the counting method is not changed it would mean all 290,000 people who have tested positive for coronavirus could eventually be added to the death toll, regardless of when and how they died.

According to the Evening Standard said the findings had triggered calls from the Health Secretary for an "urgent review" of the data.

A source told the paper: "We noticed that hospital deaths were falling but community deaths were up and wondered why.

"It turns out you could have been tested positive in February, recovered, then hit by a bus in July and you'd be recorded as a Covid death."

Speaking to the Daily Mail, Dr Loke said the statistics were "misleading" the public.

"The public are asking questions about why England is doing so badly, when actually the truth is that the healthcare professionals in NHS are doing a great job in ensuring thousands of Covid survivors. The statistics here are misleading the public," he said.

"Because of this major flaw in the statistics, and the fact that tens of thousands of older people are being monitored, there is going to be a very very long tail of daily deaths."

The Department of Health and Social Care have been contacted for comment.

John Johnston is a reporter for PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared.

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