In Depth

The UK’s coronavirus death statistics in context

Patient deaths rise by 786 but experts caution against drawing conclusions from the data

The UK’s coronavirus death toll has risen to 6,159 - almost double the official totals reported in both China and Iran.

The latest UK figures, announced by the Department of Health on Tuesday, show a jump of 786 deaths since the previous day.

However, experts have warned that the true number of fatalities could be higher.

Different ways of counting

The daily update from the Department of Health, also published on gov.uk, refers to the number of deaths in UK hospitals among patients who have tested positive for coronavirus.

On 31 March, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) also began releasing its own figures for England and Wales each week. Unlike the gov.uk numbers, these include all deaths where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, even if the infection was only suspected rather than confirmed with a test.

The ONS figures also cover deaths that occurred in locations other than hospitals, such as care homes and residential properties - which would have been missed in gov.uk’s data.

In an article on the ONS website, head of mortality analysis Sarah Caul writes: “Numbers produced by ONS are much slower to prepare, because they have to be certified by a doctor, registered and processed. But once ready, they are the most accurate and complete information.”

Overall UK deaths

Newly published ONS data for the 13th week of 2020 (21 to 27 March) offers some context for the UK’s coronavirus deaths. The total number of deaths registered in England and Wales during that period was 11,141 - which is 1,011 higher than the average weekly number for the previous five years. Of all these deaths registered between 21 and 27 March, 539 mentioned “novel coronavirus (Covid-19)” - equivalent to 4.8% of that week’s total. This is compared with 103 (1% of all deaths) in the previous week.

Of deaths involving Covid-19 in week 13, 92.9% occurred in hospital, with the remainder in hospices, care homes and private homes.

The problem with daily rises

The gov.uk’s total death toll of 6,159 accounts for reported fatalities “as of 5pm on 6 April”. However, the site notes that “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”.

This makes it hard to paint a very accurate picture of whether the death toll is going up or down every 24 hours. For example, the BBC says that “on Monday, 439 coronavirus deaths were recorded in the UK - down from 621 on Sunday and 708 on Saturday”. But “many hospitals will not report deaths that happened over the weekend until the middle of the following week”, the broadcaster notes.

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Worldwide coronavirus deaths

The Telegraph reports that “a mixture of pressures on testing capacity, differing counting protocols, and political meddling may have distorted death and infection rates around the world”.

As such, it is hard to accurately compare death tolls from each country.

That said, a general idea of the global situation can be drawn from the data on real-time statistics site Worldometer, which tracks confirmed deaths in countries worldwide.

Of the 82,155 coronavirus-related deaths recorded across the world as of Wednesday morning, the highest number (17,127) was reported in Italy. Spain had the second-highest death toll at 14,045, followed by the US with 12,857 and then France with 10,328.

The UK is now fifth in the deaths list, above Iran (3,872) and China (3,333). However, questions have been raised about the reliability of data coming out of the latter two countries.

The total number of confirmed cases in the UK (55,242) accounts for 3.9% of the global figure - 1,434,823.

The plateau

The BBC notes that we may not know we have reached the peak of coronavirus deaths, and therefore a slowing of the pandemic, for several days because of the reporting delays.

“Different hospitals will have delays of different lengths of time,” it adds. “And this makes it a challenge to see the real trend at the moment.”

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