Why the Covid 'daily' death toll doesn't chart deaths in a single day

The UK has recorded more than 90,000 coronavirus deaths.
The UK has recorded more than 90,000 coronavirus deaths. Credit: PA

The UK’s coronavirus death toll is among the highest in the world, and daily updates paint a grim picture of realities facing the country.

More than 90,000 people have died since the start of the pandemic, and the UK has frequently been reporting more than 1,000 deaths a day since the start of January.

Each day, more deaths are being reported, but it is important to understand that the facts and figures behind those tragedies.

How are Covid deaths recorded?

In the UK, a Covid death is recorded if a person has died within 28 days of the first positive test.

However, what the figures do not tell us is to what extent the virus is causing the death.

Graph showing UK deaths within 28 days of testing positive for coronavirus. Credit: PA Graphics

In some cases, it could be a major cause. In others, it could simply be a contributory factor or perhaps just present in a person’s system when they have died of something else entirely.

Theoretically, a 90-year-old cancer patient already on palliative care could die but have coronavirus in their system at the time of death. That could be recorded as a coronavirus death.

Daily and cumulative deaths within the 28 days of a positive test

The figure given each day does not necessarily mean that is the number of people who died in one day.

There is a delay between when deaths occur and when they are reported.

For example, take the daily death toll on January 19 which saw 1,610 reported deaths. Of the deaths, there were 100 people who had died in 2020 and one from as far back as May last year.

As you can see, not all of the deaths occurred in the 24 hours previous to January 19. There is a lag between when deaths are recorded. Instead, it is the number of people reported dead on January 19.

ONS graph showing daily number of reported coronavirus deaths and how Christmas and New Year had an impact on the registration of deaths. Credit: ONS

However, It is worth noting that deaths are around 25% higher than the five year average between 2015-2019, according to ONS data, which shows the profound impact Covid is having on the UK.

By comparison, deaths not involving Covid were below the five-year average in the first week of January.

Furthermore, the Christmas and New Year period has led to a higher number of deaths registered in January.

In the first week of January, the number of deaths registered was around 45% higher than the five-year average, but this increase should be treated with caution due to potential registration delays.

Graph showing the number of deaths registered by weeks in England and Wales between December 28, 2019 to January 8, 2021. Credit: ONS

Why comparing coronavirus deaths with other countries isn’t as easy as it seems

International comparisons are inevitable, however, there are several factors to consider.

By international standards, the UK is testing more people for coronavirus than many others, meaning that more cases will be detected.

And so by detecting more cases, it is likely more coronavirus deaths will likely be picked up. We know that around a third of people with Covid will show no symptoms.

Furthermore, the methodology of recording a Covid death if someone tested positive for the virus 28 days prior is not something which every country does.

Therefore, some countries may discount Covid deaths which we record as it does not fit inside their timeframe for what we may consider a “coronavirus death”.

In other words, the death rate in confirmed cases is not the same as the overall death rate.

There are also demographic factors to consider.

Spain and other European countries have different demographics to the UK. Credit: AP

One measurement is how many deaths have occurred compared to the size of the country’s population. Then we have the average age of a population.

The UK has an older population compared to other countries, and we know that the older you are, the more at risk you are of dying from Covid. In the UK, the average age of a person dying is 82.

And of course, the quality of different healthcare systems plays a critical role in controlling the pandemic.

All in all, comparisons are difficult to make. While on the face of it it may seem a country is doing well, dig behind the contributing factors and all may not be as it seems.