Mix and Match

The Guardian reports the UK reaching 100,000 COVID-19 deaths.

The Guardian newspaper reports the headline:

UK coronavirus deaths pass 100,000 after 1,564 reported in one day

Neither Public Health England nor the Office for National Statistics report this total. It is a blend of two distinct measures. We should expect UK deaths involving COVID-19 to exceed 100,000 in the future.

Distinct measures

Public Health England (PHE) run the main UK COVID-19 dashboard. This daily report shows two measures of deaths:

Deaths within 28 days of positive test

In England, Scotland and Northern Ireland: deaths from any cause within 28 days of a positive test. In Wales: this is a count of deaths with a positive test for SARS-CoV-2 in Welsh hospitals or care homes. There must be clinical suspicion of COVID-19 being a causative factor.

Deaths with COVID-19 on the death certificate

Statistical offices publish death registration statistics. Medical certificates show diseases that clinicians believe are causes or contributing factors. The Office for National Statistics publishes a UK-wide count of deaths involving COVID-19.

These two measures are distinct. The PHE measure is counting all deaths in a certain time of a positive test for SARS-CoV-2. Statistics offices counts certificates with a clinical belief that the death involved COVID-19. That means the disease caused or contributed to the death. The latter does not need a positive test result. The former is more timely, but the latter is more comprehensive.

On Wednesday 13rd January, the Public Health England dashboard showed:

  • Deaths within 28 days of positive test: 84,767 (reported up to 12th January)
  • Deaths with COVID-19 on the death certificate: 89,243 (registrations up to 1st January)
This archive is from 14th January. (Image: Public Health England/Web Archive)

Both measures are below 100,000. The Guardian came to its number by blending the two measures:

There have been 93,418 coronavirus deaths recorded by statistical agencies, based on those with Covid on the death certificate, from the beginning of the pandemic up to 10 January, and a further 7,742 deaths since, according to figures published by the government based on deaths within 28 days of a positive test for the virus.

The story is in the footnote. (Image: The Guardian)

This is inappropriate. The two counts are measuring different things. PHE found about 5% of deaths within 28 days of a positive death did not have COVID-19 on the certificate. This analysis was for deaths up to 3rd August 2020. That share could have changed since then.

We may expect deaths involving COVID-19 to surpass 100,000 deaths in the future. By its nature, that is a projection. It is not a reported figure from a statistical office or public health agency.

Public Health England has not changed its daily measure

Many social media accounts assert Public Health England changed its daily measure. This is false.

The headline measure in England remains deaths within 28 days of a positive test result. That cut-off date was to align with the counts in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

There is a secondary measure which sums:

  • Deaths within 60 days of a positive test result for SARS-CoV-2;
  • All other registrations which list COVID-19 on the death certificate.

Introduced in August 2020, that measure is only for England. Public Health England use that measure in some of their analyses:

Reported deaths are between 30th January and 31st December 2020. (Image: Public Health England)

Deaths within 60 days of a positive COVID-19 test or where COVID-19 is mentioned on the death certificate.

To reiterate: the headline measure remains deaths within 28 days of a positive test.

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

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store