The COVID experts who aren't 'getting excited' about Tuesday's zero death toll

James Morris

Watch: UK has officially reported zero COVID deaths

“The whole country will be so glad,” Matt Hancock said on Tuesday.

The health secretary was commenting on Twitter following the news that zero COVID deaths had been recorded in the UK on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, at least six national newspapers put the story on their front pages.

The arrival of the first day of zero reported COVID deaths since the pandemic began is undoubtedly good news. But a number of scientists have urged caution over the data.

For a start, the daily death data are based on the date a death is recorded by the authorities, as opposed to the date a death actually happened.

'Zero': UK national newspaper front pages on Wednesday.
'Zero': UK national newspaper front pages on Wednesday.

Deaths can take several days to be confirmed and officially recorded in the daily figures.

The fact that Tuesday’s data followed a bank holiday weekend also means “people should not get too excited”, Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said.

He explained: “Several of the sources of data on deaths are not searched on bank holiday weekends and so bank holiday Mondays and the following Tuesdays always report lower results than expected.

“Wednesdays then see more deaths reported than expected.”

Kevin McConway, professor of applied statistics at the Open University, added: “I think you can’t read much into one day with no deaths reported.

“For example, there were only four deaths reported on 4 May, the day after the May Day bank holiday, even though for most days around then, deaths were in double figures.”

While scientists were guarded in responding to Tuesday’s zero reported deaths, they were happy to acknowledge the low numbers.

Forty-three deaths have been reported in the past seven days. At the peak of the second wave in January, there were two seven-day periods where more than 8,000 deaths were reported.

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Dr Nathalie MacDermott, clinical lecturer in infectious diseases at King’s College London, said: “What is apparent is the marked reduction in daily deaths from COVID-19 over the last couple of months, which is representative of the significant reduction in daily case numbers of infections over the last five months and the impact of the vaccination programme providing a level of protection to older and more vulnerable individuals.”

There was more good COVID news on Wednesday, when new Office for National Statistics data showed the proportion of deaths involving the coronavirus in England and Wales is at its lowest level for nine months.

There were 9,860 deaths from all causes registered in the week ending 21 May. Of these, 1.1% (107) had “novel coronavirus” mentioned on the death certificate: the lowest since September last year.

However, the impact of the more transmissible Indian variant – renamed the "delta" variant by the World Health Organization – remains to be seen amid continued debate over whether or not the government should end England's lockdown as planned on 21 June.

Sir John Bell, professor of medicine at Oxford University, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that current figures “don’t look too intimidating” but they still need to “play out for a couple of weeks” before a decision is made.

Watch: No decision made on June 21 lockdown lifting, minister says