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Deaths from coronavirus far higher in England than first reported

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Via Financial Times

The daily death toll in England from coronavirus was almost 80 per cent higher than the hospital figures reported during the accelerating phase of its spread across the country. 

Even these figures, running up to March 27 and verified by the Office for National Statistics, are an underestimate as they do not capture the total number of those who died with Covid-19 symptoms outside hospitals. 

The latest ONS data showed 11,141 people died from all causes in England and Wales in the week to March 27, compared with the five-year average for that week of 10,130. 

With 10 per cent more deaths registered in that week than normal, only one week in 2019 had a higher level of excess deaths, although there were many weeks with worse figures in the period of 2017-18 seasonal winter flu.

Chart showing coronavirus deaths have been rising faster than reported, cumulative deaths by date, England

Every day, the count of new deaths has become one of the most highly watched statistics in Britain, but it reflects many deaths that happened days earlier, with an average delay of three days. 

The Department for Health and Social Care said that the daily number of coronavirus hospital deaths on Tuesday was 786, taking the total number of UK hospital deaths to 6,159.

With coronavirus currently on the steep upward slope of an epidemic, the delays have resulted in a serious under-reporting of the daily number of deaths.

On March 28, the Department of Health and Social Care reported that in England 926 people had died in hospital from coronavirus in total by the previous day. 

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The latest figures, taking account of the date of death, show that in fact 1,649 people had died in English hospitals by March 27, a figure 78 per cent higher than originally reported. 

The health department has continued to suggest its figures are up to date, saying on its website, “the amount of time between occurrence of death and reporting in these figures may vary slightly and in some cases could be a few days, so figures at 5pm may not include all deaths for that day”.

The ONS figures suggest the average delay for all deaths in hospitals is roughly three days and the daily hospital death count has been much higher than the reported numbers while the death total has been accelerating. 

Chart showing coronavirus cumulative deaths have been much higher than first reported, increase over original reported figure, England (%)

Ultimately the total will be higher still when the ONS has final figures on the number of deaths outside hospitals, but this data has been significantly delayed because death registrations are more difficult under the lockdown that began on March 23. 

“It takes time for deaths to be reported and included in ONS figures,” the statistical office said.

Separately, Public Health England reports estimates for a concept of excess deaths, which it said were statistically significantly high in the week ending March 27 as a result of excess deaths of those aged over 65.

Matt Fletcher, senior longevity consultant at Aon, the pension advisers, said there was some evidence the speed of reporting of deaths had increased over the past week, which might explain the sudden sharp rise in reported hospital deaths.

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With this in mind, he said it was best to use the NHS England statistics on the deaths when they occurred rather when first reported “to illustrate progression of UK deaths and as a starting point for projections”. 

The ONS said the daily counts were still useful “because they are available very quickly”, while the figures adjusted for the date of death revealed the delays in reporting hospital deaths and gave “a better indicator of the growth in the number of deaths”.

In time, it added, the ONS official figures on all deaths would provide “the most accurate and complete information”.

In the data it had so far, the statistical office said that 4.8 per cent of death certificates notified to it so far for the week up to March 27 mentioned coronavirus, up from 1 per cent in the previous week. 

Some 36 per cent of deaths notified to the ONS by that date and mentioning Covid-19 on the death certificate were of those aged 85 or over; another 33 per cent were of those between 75 and 85 years of age. Only 12 per cent of deaths with coronavirus on the death certificate were aged under 65 with none aged under 15. 

But the highest proportion of death certificates mentioning coronavirus was in the age group 65 to 74 years old, at 5.5 per cent, suggesting for this group there was an increased risk of death from the virus.

Men accounted for 62 per cent of all deaths, highlighting their increased susceptibility to the disease. 

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London was similarly a hotspot for the disease and for deaths, with Covid-19 mentioned on 18.3 per cent of all deaths in the capital in the week ending March 27. 

In the data the ONS has to date, almost all the deaths were occurring in hospital, accounting for 501 of the 539 death certificates mentioning Covid-19.


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