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Matt Hancock launches inquiry into true PHE coronavirus death figures

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 17/07/2020 Henry Bodkin

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 5, 2020: Health Secretary Matt Hancock at the BBC before appearing on the Andrew Marr Show. London, Great Britain, 05 Jul 2020 David Nash / Barcroft Media- PHOTOGRAPH BY David Nash / Barcroft Studios / Future Publishing (Photo credit should read David Nash/Barcroft Media via Getty Images) © David Nash / Barcroft Studios / Future Publishing LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 5, 2020: Health Secretary Matt Hancock at the BBC before appearing on the Andrew Marr Show. London, Great Britain, 05 Jul 2020 David Nash / Barcroft Media- PHOTOGRAPH BY David Nash / Barcroft Studios / Future Publishing (Photo credit should read David Nash/Barcroft Media via Getty Images) Matt Hancock has ordered an urgent review into the reporting of coronavirus deaths after it emerged Public Health England (PHE) has “over-exaggerated” the true figures.

A significant proportion of the official daily death toll are people who have recovered from Covid-19 but then gone on to die of other causes, Oxford University experts have revealed.

PHE's figures feed into the daily death statistics published by the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC).

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Unlike in Scotland and Wales, where there is a 28-day cut-off, anyone who has ever tested positive for coronavirus in England will count as a Covid death when they die, even if that is months later and from an obviously unrelated cause.

Professor Carl Heneghan, director at Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, said the true number of deaths from Covid-19 in England is likely to be at around 30 to 35 a day.

a person holding a sign: People wear face masks as they go shopping on July 14, 2020 in Liverpool, © Provided by The Telegraph People wear face masks as they go shopping on July 14, 2020 in Liverpool, He said that under the current counting system, “no-one can ever recover from Covid-19”.

“A patient who has tested positive, but successfully treated and discharged from hospital, will still be counted as a Covid death even if they had a heart attack or were run over by a bus three months later,” he said.

The centre has calculated that there are approximately 80,000 recovered Covid-19 patients currently in the community.

Many are elderly and would naturally be expected to die of age or other illnesses in the next few months or years.

Professor Heneghan said that if all are counted as Covid-19 deaths, the official PHE toll could well exceed 290,000.

Gallery: Coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak around the world (Photo Services)

The disparity helps explain why PHE’s out-of-hospital Covid death figures have remained stubbornly high, even though the Office for National Statistics shows deaths have been below the five-year average for the last three weeks.

Mr Hancock’s review piles further pressure on the besieged agency, which has come under massive criticism for failing to provide enough testing capacity until well into the crisis.

Speaking this morning on Today on BBC Radio 4, Professor Heneghan said: “We think it's incredibly important, so that you understand exactly what's going on, that you say these are the deaths that occurred within a certain time point, and then you can understand the trends and that will help the media report accurately to the public what's going on.”

Asked what the real figures say about the shape of the epidemic, he added: “It has slowed in the last couple of weeks - it's still coming down, but it's coming down at a slower rate.

“The reason for that is not clear to us, but this is why we need correct stats accurate statistics so we can really understand the trend. 

“If we get this massive variation it's very difficult for us to understand exactly what's going on.”

Stay at home as much as possible to stop coronavirus spreading - here is the latest government guidance. If you think you have the virus, don't go to the GP or hospital, stay indoors and get advice online. Only call NHS 111 if you cannot cope with your symptoms at home; your condition gets worse; or your symptoms do not get better after seven days. In parts of Wales where 111 isn't available, call NHS Direct on 0845 46 47. In Scotland, anyone with symptoms is advised to self-isolate for seven days. In Northern Ireland, call your GP.

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