The changes mean that 5,377 deaths will no longer be included in the official Public Health England total, causing the UK total to decrease from 46,706 to 41,329 – a reduction of 11.5%.
From now on, the government’s official toll will only include those who have died within 28 days of testing positive for the virus, a change that puts England in line with other parts of the UK. Previously, deaths in England were included for anyone who died as a result of a positive coronavirus test at any time.
Analysis of the data by the government found that 96% of deaths occurred within 60 days or had Covid-19 on the death certificate, while 88% of deaths occurred within 28 days of a positive test.
Daily death toll announcements were suspended in mid-July after Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced a review of deaths included in the government figure.
At the time, Hancock claimed that figures from Public Health England overestimated the death toll from Covid-19.
There is a discrepancy between figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which counts deaths for which Covid-19 is mentioned on the death certificate and includes deaths in all settings, and data from the PHE, which cover deaths in hospitals or those linked to a positive Covid test.
Official PHE figures are still likely to represent a significant undercount of the true death toll. The coronavirus deaths recorded by the ONS are almost a third higher than the government figure.
The new PHE figures, which cover the period up to August 12, put the death toll at 36,695 for England, while the ONS reported 49,183 which occurred as of July 31, 2020 but were recorded on August 8.
However, due to the differences in how deaths are counted, experts have cautioned not to rely solely on death statistics from Covid-19. The excess of deaths, which compares the number of deaths in a given week to the five-year average, is widely regarded as the “gold standard” for measuring the impact of the coronavirus.
The UK has one of the highest excess death rates in Europe. The total number of excess deaths topped 65,000 across the UK between the first coronavirus deaths recorded in mid-March and late June.
Professor David Spiegelhalter of the University of Cambridge Statistics Laboratory said: “This is a complex area and there is no really ‘correct’ count… My real concern is communication with the media and the public. .
“PES has always been poor in clarifying both who is included as a Covid death and the inevitable delays in reporting, and their dashboard gave the strong impression that the daily tally is the actual number of deaths the day before.
“This in turn has influenced how the number is reported by the media and is deeply misleading at this point in the outbreak, when the daily reported and actual counts can be very different. I desperately hope that the PES can do more to avoid misinterpretations, but they have found themselves in a difficult situation adding even more complexity to the multiplicity of Covid death statistics.
Keith Neal, professor emeritus in infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Nottingham, said the measures made sense and brought England in line with the rest of the UK.
“The previous measure of still being a death from Covid-19, even restored, was not scientific. As Covid-19-related deaths decline, the number of recovered patients, especially the very old and those with severe underlying illnesses, are now dying from these conditions and not from Covid-19.
“These non-Covid-19 deaths among survivors would become an ever increasing percentage of reported Covid-19 deaths in England. It had become essentially unnecessary for epidemiological surveillance. “