Counting UK COVID-19 deaths

As the UK exceeds 100,000 deaths, how do we count these deaths?

Anthony B. Masters

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On Tuesday 26th January, the UK daily COVID-19 death toll reached 100,000.

This article looks at the different ways of counting COVID-19 deaths.

Public Health England and the daily count

Broadcasts and article will often report how many more COVID-19 there are.

This is not the number of people who died with COVID-19 on that day. There are delays between a person dying and their death entering record systems. The figure for the United Kingdom comprises:

  • England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland: deaths from any cause within 28 days of a positive SARS-CoV-2 test result.
  • Wales: deaths of Welsh hospital patients and care home residents, with a positive test. Clinicians must also suspect that COVID-19 was a causative factor in the death.

Public Health England call this count the ‘death within 28 days of positive test’ measure. PHE have responsibility for collating and reporting the UK-wide daily counts.

This measure is not meant to be comprehensive. There is not an intentional consensus on daily reported deaths. As an Office for National Statistics spokesperson said, the daily count is:

[a] short-term measure designed to give an up-to-date account of how the pandemic is developing[.]

There are circumstances where a person can die of COVID-19, but not appear in the daily count:

  • No positive test: a lab-confirmed death only counts people with a positive test result. Untested people and those with all false negative results are not part of this figure.
  • Time-outs: if a death occurred 29 days or more after a positive test, public health agencies do not count this death. In Wales, it depends on whether clinicians suspect COVID-19 was a causative factor.
  • Other settings in Wales: suppose a person dies outside hospital or institutional settings in Wales. That COVID-19 death is not part of the Public Health Wales figure.

By Tuesday 26th January, this measure reported 100,162 COVID-19 deaths in the UK.

Office for National Statistics and death registrations

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Anthony B. Masters

This blog looks at the use of statistics in Britain and beyond. It is written by RSS Statistical Ambassador and Chartered Statistician @anthonybmasters.