Health secretary Matt Hancock has ordered an urgent review into how Public Health England (PHE) calculates daily Covid-19 death figures following criticism of “statistical flaws” in how the data is collated.
It comes after researchers said the way deaths from Covid-19 are reported across England has led to an "over-exaggeration" of the figures.
The way PHE calculates the figures means England’s deaths from coronavirus appear far higher than any other part of the UK, the experts behind the study said.
In a blog entitled “Why no-one can ever recover from Covid-19 in England – a statistical anomaly”, Professors Yoon Loke, from the University of East Anglia, and Carl Heneghan, from the University of Oxford, said more robust data is needed.
They argue that PHE looks at whether a person has ever tested positive and whether they are still alive at a later date.
This means anyone who has ever tested positive for Covid-19 and then dies is included in the death figures, even if they have died from something else.
“PHE does not appear to consider how long ago the Covid test result was, nor whether the person has been successfully treated in hospital and discharged to the community,” they said.
“Anyone who has tested Covid positive but subsequently died at a later date of any cause will be included on the PHE Covid death figures.
“By this PHE definition, no-one with Covid in England is allowed to ever 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 experts said this is the reason why PHE figures “vary substantially from day to day”.
They also said that around 80,000 recovered patients in the community are continuing to be monitored by PHE for the daily death statistics, even though many are elderly and may die of something else.
They concluded: “It’s time to fix this statistical flaw that leads to an over-exaggeration of Covid-associated deaths.
“One reasonable approach would be to define community Covid-related deaths as those that occurred within 21 days of a Covid positive test result