Why we do not know exactly how many die each day due to coronavirus

It is now over a month since the first coronavirus-related death in the UK was announced.

But we still do not know exactly how many people are dying each day due to Covid-19.

We also do not know precisely where they are dying – in hospital, in care homes or somewhere else.

For while there are several sources that provide information on coronavirus-related deaths in different parts of the UK, there is not one single source that gives a real-time snapshot for the whole of the country.

The reason is to do with the way the statistics are being reported.

Firstly, the Department of Health announces a figure every day for the number of deaths – up to 5pm on the previous afternoon – of those “hospitalised in the UK who tested positive for coronavirus”.

But this figure does not tell us the number of ‘new’ deaths that have happened each day.

It is simply an updated total of the number of deaths that have been announced so far – in other words, a ‘stock-take’ of deaths in the country to date, regardless of whether those deaths took place in the past 24, 48 or 76 hours, or even in the previous week.

Coronavirus-related deaths can take a number of days to be officially announced, depending on how long it takes for the deaths to be confirmed as testing positive for Covid-19, for post-mortem tests to be processed, for families of the victims to be informed, and for data to be validated.

In short, the day-on-day change in the Department of Health figure is not moving in step with how many coronavirus-related deaths are taking place in real time.

To further complicate matters, this particular figure relates in almost all instances to patients who have died in hospital, and excludes nearly all of those who died in the wider community.

What about other sources?

NHS England has started to publish a daily breakdown of coronavirus-related deaths based on the actual date they occurred – but these figures are only for hospitals in England, and are continually being revised as fresh data is processed.

(PA graphic)

The devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each publish a daily update of coronavirus-related deaths – but these are not in sync with each other or with England, are continually being adjusted to incorporate new methods for counting deaths, and do not specify where the deaths occurred.

The Office for National Statistics has started to publish a weekly breakdown of coronavirus-related deaths that have occurred both inside and outside hospital, based on where Covid-19 is mentioned on the death certificate – but these figures are only for England and Wales, not the whole of the UK, have a time lag of several days, and only give weekly totals.

It all means that, while there are a lot of statistics being published about coronavirus-related deaths, there is – as yet – no single, unified, accurate measure of how many people are dying across the UK each day.

And because we do not have this measure, we cannot say for sure whether the growth in the number of deaths per day is accelerating, slowing down or has come to a halt – and as such, we have no idea of exactly where we are in the “curve” of the outbreak.

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