By Connor Boyd Health Reporter For Mailonline 08:30 06 Aug 2020, updated 17:36 06 Aug 2020
Thousands of coronavirus deaths are set to be wiped from the government's official count, it was claimed today.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock last month ordered an urgent review into how daily death counts are calculated in England because of a 'statistical flaw'.
Academics found Public Health England's methods meant ministers count victims as anyone who died after ever testing positive for Covid-19 — even if they were hit by a bus after beating the disease months later.
It would've meant that, technically, no-one could ever recover from the virus and all 265,000 of England's confirmed patients would eventually have had their deaths attributed to the disease.
The blunder could see up to 4,000 deaths removed from England's official toll of 41,749, according to reports. One of the leading experts who uncovered the flaw told MailOnline his 'best guess' was that more than 1,000 people have had their deaths wrongly recorded as caused by Covid-19.
Mr Hancock is set to bring the figures in line with Scotland and Northern Ireland, which only attribute deaths to Covid-19 if it occurs within a month of their diagnosis.
The Health Secretary is expected to announce the new measurement by the end of the week following the two-week review into the counting fiasco.
The statistical flaw was uncovered by Oxford University's Professor Carl Heneghan and Dr Yoon Loke, from the University of East Anglia.
Professor Heneghan, director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at the prestigious university, told the Sun: 'It is a sensible decision. There is no point attributing deaths to Covid 28 days after infection.
Click here to resize this moduleThe statistical flaw was uncovered by Oxford University's Professor Carl Heneghan
Public Health England has come under fire for the way it has handled the UK's coronavirus testing system, for which it was responsible at the start of the Covid-19 crisis.
Its directors have tried to divert blame, explaining that major decisions are taken by Government ministers in the Department of Health, but the body has been accused of being controlling.
These are some of the mis-steps for which PHE has been blamed:
Stopping mass testing and tracing
On March 12 the Government announced it would no longer test everybody who was thought to have coronavirus, and it would stop tracking the contacts of the majority of cases to try and stop the spread of the disease.
As a result, Britain effectively stopped tracking the virus and it was allowed to spiral out of control.
Conservative MP David Davis said that was 'precisely the wrong thing to do'.
Professor Yvonne Doyle, PHE's medical director, told MPs in May: 'It was a decision that was come to because of the sheer scale of cases in the UK.'
She added: 'We knew that if this epidemic continued to increase we would certainly need more capacity.'
PHE said: 'Widespread contact tracing was stopped because increased community transmission meant it was no longer the most useful strategy.'
Lack of contact tracing capacity
Papers published by Government scientists on SAGE revealed that PHE only had the capacity to cope with five new cases a week on February 18.
Only nine cases had been diagnosed at the time.
PHE experts said modelling suggested capacity could increased ten-fold to 50 new cases a week — allowing them to contact 8,000 people a day.
SAGE said: 'When there is sustained transmission in the UK, contact tracing will no longer be useful.'
Britain's cases jumped started to jump by 50 each day at the beginning of March.
Pledged antibody tests in March
PHE's Professor Sharon Peacock said on March 25 that the UK was on course to have antibody tests available to the public that month.
She confirmed the Government had bought 3.5million of the tests and was evaluating their quality.
They could be available to the public 'within days', she said at a Downing Street briefing.
Three months later, however, and they are still not a reality. Officials have since decided there are no tests good enough available, and there is no proof that the results will be of any use to the public.
Testing efforts slowed by 'centralised' lab approach
Scientists in private labs, universities and research institutes across the country said in April that their offers to help with coronavirus testing had fallen on deaf ears.
Only eight PHE laboratories and some in NHS hospitals were being used to analyse tests during the start of the crisis.
'Little ship' labs had tools to process tests and could have increased testing capacity rapidly if officials had agreed to work with them, they said.
But it took Britain until the end of April to manage more than 100,000 tests in a day. Germany had been managing the feat for weeks by utilising private laboratories.
Number 10 was eventually pressured into abandoning the centralised approach and urged the wider science industry to help boost capacity.
One top scientist said NHS hospitals could have devised their own coronavirus tests but were 'fearful of upsetting Public Health England'.
But PHE says it did not 'constrain or seek to control any laboratory either public, university or commercial from conducting testing for Covid-19'.
It claimed that it requested officials changed testing methods in January to allow for any testing facility to conduct diagnostic tests.
'All it does is muddy the water. While deaths are falling in Scotland, PHE data suggests matters are worse in England.
'But if it's someone who picked up the virus in a care home in March and recovered, and last week died of a heart attack, what does that actually tell us?'
Professor Heneghan said the 28 day measure employed by the rest of the UK allowed experts to compare the outbreak on previous months with more precision, which helps inform policymakers about what steps need to be taken.
He added: 'If deaths are going down, great. And if they are up, then we need to act. But at the moment, the figures are just confusing.'
The Office for National Statistics, another Government agency, also records Covid-19 deaths, and is considered the most reliable source.
The ONS — which is not affected by the counting method — has confirmed at least 51,596 people have died in England and Wales up to July 24.
Its calculations are based on death certificates with Covid-19 as a suspected contributor.
Public Health England told MailOnline last month that the World Health Organization has not defined a time limit for counting a death as caused by Covid-19, and said it 'continues to keep this under review'.
It admitted that a coronavirus death is one that happens to anyone who has previously tested positive, regardless of how long ago the test happened. It said the 'vast majority' of Covid-19 deaths were correctly identified.
Dr Loke added at the time: 'This statistical flaw arose because PHE chose a quick and easy technique.
'Their statistical method is reasonably accurate at the beginning of the pandemic, when there were not yet many people in the community who had survived Covid.
'However, PHE did not — and have not yet — realised that glaring inaccuracies arise when tens of thousands of frail older people are discharged from hospital, and these Covid survivors unfortunately die from other, non-Covid related causes.'
Ministers are thought to be planning a huge reform of PHE following a series of failings by the beleaguered agency during the crisis.
PHE was blamed for the initially chaotic coronavirus testing regime as well as the decision made early in the epidemic to abandon widespread tracking of the virus.
The move was seen by many scientists as one of the central mistakes in Britain's handling of the pandemic. The UK has the highest number of coronavirus deaths in Europe.
PHE – an executive agency of the Department of Health – was also criticised for refusing the offer of help from universities and private labs to carry out tests.
The Prime Minister has not named PHE specifically, but he told the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs in May that he was planning a review of 'a number of institutions' after the pandemic is over.
The health secretary last month admitted that he didn't realise what the agency's limits were until the crisis exposed them.
Speaking to a committee of MPs, Mr Hancock was pressed on whether he was reforming PHE.
He said: 'There will be a time for that. My priority now is on controlling the virus and preparing for winter... we need a public health agency that isn't only brilliant at science but also able to go to scale quickly.'
Meanwhile, the UK recorded another 65 coronavirus deaths yesterday — taking the official number of victims in Britain to 46,364.
Around 58 Brits are now succumbing to the life-threatening infection each day, on average.
The deaths data does not represent how many Covid-19 patients died within the last 24 hours — it is only how many fatalities have been reported and registered with the authorities.
And the figure does not always match updates provided by the home nations. Department of Health officials work off a different time cut-off, meaning daily updates from Scotland and Northern Ireland are out of sync.
The count announced by NHS England every afternoon, which only takes into account deaths in hospitals, does not match up with the DH figures because they work off a different recording system.
For instance, some deaths announced by NHS England bosses will have already been counted by the Department of Health, which records fatalities 'as soon as they are available'.
But the fatality curve is no longer flattening as quickly as it was, with the rolling seven-day average number of daily deaths having been in the sixties since July 18.
It can take infected patients several weeks to die, meaning any spike in deaths won't be immediately apparent in government figures.
It is currently impossible to know how many of the deaths announced by the Department of Health were not actually caused directly by Covid-19.
Separate figures — released on Tuesday — revealed overall deaths in England and Wales are still below the number usually expected at this time of year, based on an average from the previous five years.
Department of Health bosses say 820 Britons are now being struck down with the life-threatening virus every day, on average. The rate has been rising since dropping to a four-month low of 546 on July 8.
The figures add to mounting fears of a second wave in Britain, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson understood to be 'extremely concerned' about cases bubbling up in the UK and in other European nations that have relaxed tough lockdown measures. France today warned it could lose control of Covid-19 'at any moment'.
But the number of patients being admitted to hospital has yet to spike, bolstering claims from top scientists that the outbreak is not getting worse and cases are only rising because more patients are being tested.
Just 109 coronavirus patients were admitted for NHS care across the UK on August 2 — a figure which has barely changed throughout July. During the darkest days of Britain's crisis in April, around 3,500 patients were needing hospital treatment every day.