Thousands of coronavirus deaths will be erased from the government’s official tally, it was claimed today.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock last month ordered an urgent review of how daily death tally is calculated in England due to a “statistical flaw.”
Academics discovered a problem in Public Health England’s methods that meant ministers counted victims like anyone who died after testing positive for Covid-19 – even though they were hit by a bus after beating the disease for months later.
This would have meant that, technically, no one could ever recover from the virus and that all 265,000 confirmed patients in the country would have ultimately had their deaths attributed to the disease.
The blunder could see as many as 4,000 deaths removed from England’s official toll of 41,686.
Mr Hancock will now align the figures with Scotland and Northern Ireland, which only attribute deaths to Covid-19 if they occur within one month of their diagnosis.
The health secretary is expected to announce the new measure by the end of the week following the two-week review of the testing fiasco.
The statistical flaw was discovered by Professor Carl Heneghan of the University of Oxford and Dr Yoon Loke of the University of East Anglia.
Professor Heneghan, director of the prestigious university’s Center for Evidence-Based Medicine, told The Sun: “It’s a smart move. There is no point in attributing deaths to Covid 28 days after infection.
The statistical flaw was discovered by Professor Carl Heneghan of the University of Oxford
WHAT ELSE HAS PUBLIC HEALTH DONE ABOUT?
Public Health England has been criticized for the way it handled the UK’s coronavirus testing system, for which it was responsible at the start of the Covid-19 crisis.
Its directors have tried to deflect the blame, explaining that major decisions are made by government ministers within the health ministry, but which the body has been accused of controlling.
Here are some of the mistakes PHE has been blamed for:
Test and trace stopped on March 12
On March 12, the government announced that it would no longer test everyone suspected of having coronavirus and that it would stop tracking contacts of cases to try to stop the spread of the disease.
As a result, Britain effectively stopped tracking the virus and it was allowed to get out of hand.
It did not have the capacity to test the number of people who caught the virus, officials have since admitted.
Conservative MP David Davis said today that it was “precisely the wrong thing to do.”
Professor Yvonne Doyle, medical director of PHE, told MPs in May: “It was a decision which was taken due to the scale of cases in the UK”.
Insufficient contact tracing capacity
Articles published by government scientists on SAGE revealed that PHE only had enough contact tracing capacity to last two weeks in the event of a virus outbreak.
PHE experts themselves said in February that capacity would need to be increased immediately, but admitted that it could only be increased by around 10 times, to reach 8,000 people a day, which still would not be enough.
The document warned: “When cases of higher generational numbers become predominant, CCI should be of limited benefit outside of certain special cases and should be discontinued.
Antibody tests promised in March
PHE Professor Sharon Peacock said on March 25 that the UK is on track to make antibody tests available to the public this month.
She confirmed that the government had purchased 3.5 million tests and was assessing their quality.
They could be made available to the public “in a matter of days,” she said at a Downing Street briefing.
Three months later, however, and they still aren’t a reality. Officials have since decided that there aren’t enough good tests available, and there is no evidence that the results will be of any use to the public.
Testing efforts slowed by a centralized lab approach
Scientists at private laboratories, universities and research institutes across the country said in April that their offers of help with coronavirus testing had fallen on deaf ears.
PHE was moving forward with a ‘centralized’ testing model in which only its eight laboratories and some in NHS hospitals were used to analyze tests.
The “small ship” labs, of which there are hundreds across the country, had the tools to process the tests and could have rapidly increased testing capacity had officials agreed to work with them, they said.
But it took Britain until the end of April to handle more than 100,000 tests in a day, while Germany had managed the exploit for weeks using private labs.
“All he does is muddy the water. As deaths decline in Scotland, data from PHE suggests things are worse in England.
“But if this is someone who caught the virus in a nursing home in March and recovered, and died last week of a heart attack, what does that tell us?” Actually? “
Professor Heneghan said the 28-day measure used by the rest of the UK has allowed experts to compare the epidemic from previous months more accurately, helping to educate policymakers on what to do next.
He added: “If deaths go down, so much the better. And if they are in place, we must act. But for now, the numbers are confusing.
The Office for National Statistics, another government agency, also records deaths related to Covid-19 and is considered the most reliable source.
His calculations are based on death certificates with Covid-19 as a suspected contributor.
Ministers are believed to be planning a huge reform of the PHE following a series of failures by the besieged agency during the crisis.
PHE has been blamed for the initially chaotic coronavirus testing regime as well as the decision taken at the start of the epidemic to abandon widespread monitoring of the virus.
The move was seen by many scientists as one of the main mistakes in Britain’s handling of the pandemic. The UK has the highest number of coronavirus deaths in Europe.
PHE – an executive agency of the Ministry of Health – has also been criticized for refusing offers of help from universities and private laboratories to perform tests.
The prime minister did not name SPE specifically, but he told the 1922 Conservative MPs Committee in May that he was planning a review of “a number of institutions” after the pandemic ended.
The health secretary admitted last month that he did not realize what the agency’s limits were until the crisis exposed them.
Speaking to a committee of MPs, Mr Hancock was pressed to know if he was reforming the PHE.
He said, “There will be a time for it. My priority now is to control the virus and prepare for winter… we need a public health agency that is not only brilliant at science, but also capable of scaling up quickly.
Meanwhile, the UK recorded 65 more coronavirus deaths yesterday, bringing the official death toll in Britain to 46,364.
An average of 58 Britons today succumb to this potentially fatal infection.
Death data does not represent the number of Covid-19 patients who died in the past 24 hours – it is only the number of deaths reported and registered with authorities.
And the figure does not always match the updates provided by the countries of origin. Department of Health officials work at a different cut-off time, which means the daily updates for Scotland and Northern Ireland are not in sync.
The tally announced by NHS England each afternoon, which only takes into account deaths in hospitals, does not match the DH figures as they operate on a different registration system.
For example, some deaths announced by the bosses of NHS England will have already been counted by the Department of Health, which records the deaths “as soon as they are available”.
But the death curve isn’t flattening as quickly as it used to be, with the seven-day sliding average number of daily deaths in the sixties since July 18.
Infected patients can take several weeks to die, meaning any increase in the number of deaths will not be immediately apparent in government figures.
NHS England today declared 13 casualties in hospitals across the country. Wales recorded two in all settings. No deaths have been recorded in Scotland or Northern Ireland.
Separate figures – released yesterday – revealed overall deaths in England and Wales are still lower than the number usually expected at this time of year, based on an average of the previous five years.
Health Department bosses say 820 Britons are now stricken with the deadly virus every day, on average. The rate has been on the rise since falling to a four-month low of 546 on July 8.
The figures add to growing fears of a second wave in Britain, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson seen as “extremely concerned” by cases bubbling up in the UK and other European countries which have relaxed strict locking. France today warned that it could lose control of Covid-19 “at any time”.
But the number of patients admitted to hospital has yet to increase, reinforcing claims by top scientists that the epidemic is not getting worse and cases are only increasing because more and more patients are tested.
Only 109 coronavirus patients were admitted for NHS care across the UK on August 2 – a figure that barely changed in July. During the darkest days of the UK crisis in April, around 3,500 patients required hospital care every day.