How accurate is the UK’s official coronavirus death toll?

Lockdown sceptics question how Covid-19 deaths are counted after release of ONS data

National Covid-19 Memorial Wall in London
(Image credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The UK’s official Covid-19 death toll is being questioned after the release of a Freedom of Information (FOI) request made to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The request asked for data on “deaths purely from Covid with no other underlying causes”. The data provided by the ONS shows that there have been more than 17,300 Covid-19 deaths not related to any pre-existing health conditions such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease.

Media commentators such as GB News presenter Dan Wootton used the release of the data to rail against the reporting of Covid deaths and the use of strict government lockdowns.

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“The political and media establishment have got it all wrong when it comes to the scare campaign around Covid,” said Wootton. “The media talks a lot of the 150,000 deaths, perhaps they should have been talking about the number of people who died of Covid, not with Covid. That was just 17,371.”

He compared the 17,000 figure to a “normal winter flu season”.

Official government data on Covid-19 deaths far exceeds this number. According to the government’s Covid-19 dashboard on Monday 24 January 2022, 153,916 people had died within 28 days of a positive Covid test, or 175,256 died with Covid listed as a cause on their death certificate.

Is the 17,000 figure the true number of Covid deaths?

“In short, no,” said George Eaton, senior editor of The New Statesman. “The ONS has long distinguished between deaths ‘due to Covid’ and deaths ‘involving Covid’,” Eaton explained. “If we use the former measure, which covers only those deaths in which coronavirus is listed as an underlying cause, the total number for England and Wales is not 17,371 but 141,722 (as of 8 January).

“In other words, the overwhelming majority of people died from Covid, not merely with it,” he continued.

The “logic” of the argument – that only some 17,000 died directly from Covid-19 – relies on the assumption that “anyone with a pre-existing condition” did not die of Covid as they were “already close to death”.

But an examination of the top 20 pre-existing conditions for people who died of Covid-19 reveals this as “absurd”, said Eaton. It includes conditions that millions of people in the UK live with, such as “high blood pressure, asthma and other chronic respiratory diseases, obesity and diabetes”, he said.

Eaton branded the suggestion that those who died of Covid-19 and had pre-existing conditions were “at death’s door” as “inaccurate and insulting”.

The vast majority of patients, according to intensive care reports from May 2021, were able to live without assistance in daily activities – only “10 per cent required some assistance and a mere 0.4 per cent required total assistance”, he said.

Are we undercounting Covid deaths?

Far from exaggerating the number of deaths related to Covid-19, we may be undercounting them, according to analysis from The Guardian.

A paper published by the University of Leicester in January 2021 found that 30% of Covid-19 patients discharged from English hospitals were readmitted within five months and almost one in eight of them died, “raising further concerns over the accuracy of the widely quoted official figure”, said the paper.

The data from the paper may have meant that “thousands of coronavirus patients will be readmitted to hospital and some will die with complications from the virus without being included in the government tally”, which only includes those who have died within 28 days of receiving a positive Covid-19 test.

“Over time this discrepancy is likely to make the government figure less of an accurate representation of the true coronavirus death toll,” the paper said.

Rather than being seen as a definitive source of the number of Covid deaths, the government tally should instead be regarded as a “short-term measure designed to give an up-to-date account of how the pandemic is developing”, which allows the government to make operational decisions promptly, said an ONS spokesperson.

“It’s useful as a rapid indication, but the problem is the media reporting, who give too much attention to the daily reports, and don’t seem to understand its limitations, particularly the huge undercount in the first wave due to limited testing,” David Spiegelhalter, a British statistician, told The Guardian.

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