Fixes, Fiddles and Daily Figures

Did UK government ministers ‘downplay’ the COVID-19 peak?

Anthony B. Masters


The Guardian reports there were “nearly 1,500 deaths in one day”. This figure is higher than the daily COVID-19 measure. Sir David King said it was “an attempt to play down the adversity that the country was faced with”.

The front page article led to claims of ‘fixing’ and ‘fiddling’ the daily COVID-19 figures. This article examines these claims.

Differences in measures

The Guardian looks at differences in COVID-19 death measures. The “actual death toll”, here, comes from the three statistical offices:

On 9 April the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, standing in for the hospitalised prime minister, said the death toll had increased by 881 on the previous day. The actual death toll was 64% higher than that.

Note that the graph ends on 28th April. (Image: Guardian)

We can look at their definitions in detail:

  • DHSC: Before 29th April, confirmed deaths with COVID-19 in hospitals in England. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, confirmed deaths in all settings. Public Health Wales requires clinical suspicion COVID-19 was causative factor. PHW covers confirmed deaths in hospitals or care homes. After 29th April, the England measure was: confirmed deaths in all places. The measure counts deaths by date of report, not date of death.
  • ONS/NRS/NISRA: counts of death certificates where COVID-19 is mentioned. That mention does not need a positive test result. It only needs clinical suspicion. Statistics offices report these deaths by registration date and by date of occurrence. It takes time to certify deaths.

Both the DHSC and ONS measure associated deaths: deaths with the disease. This is different to deaths from COVID-19.

There are several key differences between the two measures:

  • Date of report: The DHSC count is adding confirmed deaths in the last 24-hour reporting period. Those deaths were not in the last 24 hours.
  • Coverage: Before 29th April, confirmed deaths in England referred only to hospital deaths. The data source was NHS England. Public Health Wales reports on deaths in hospitals and care homes.
  • Suspected deaths: The…



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.