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Hospital admissions ‘inflated’ at height of UK coronavirus outbreak

The Week logo The Week 21/08/2020 Joe Evans
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The number of patients admitted to hospital with Covid-19 was over-reported at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, an investigation for the government’s Science Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) has revealed.

Analysis of hospital figures showed patients “being counted as Covid hospital admissions if they had ever had the virus”, meaning those patients were “added to those being admitted directly due to it”, The Telegraph says.

Government figures had shown that at the pandemic’s height in early April, almost 20,000 people a week were admitted to hospital with coronavirus symptoms. However, “the true figure is unknown because of the problem with over-counting”, the paper adds. 

The inflated admissions echoes problems with Covid-19 death data, the Telegraph’s science editor Sarah Knapton notes, in which “thousands of people who died of other causes were being included in coronavirus statistics if they had once tested positive”.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced an “urgent” review into the death figures last month, which the Daily Mail says would have recorded a Covid-19 death even if the person was “hit by a bus” after having previously tested positive. 

Experts told The Telegraph that the admissions miscalculation was “particularly concerning because the number had been used to reflect the current state of the epidemic”.

Professor Carl Heneghan, director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at the University of Oxford, described it as a “crucial point”, adding that it is “more important than the death data because it is the best marker of the impact of the disease”.

Heneghan added that the counting “really does need sorting out as we go into the winter, otherwise we get into this noisy position where we can’t understand what’s going on. It’s clouding our judgment as to whether the disease is having a significant impact”.

Professor Stephen Powis, National Medical Director of NHS England said that it is “completely untrue to claim there has been any ambiguity in the data” on Covid inpatients, adding that “NHS trusts track data on patients in their hospitals that have Covid, whether admitted as a Covid patient, or for another condition”.

Noting that data was shared daily at Downing Street press conferences, Powis said that instructions to hospitals “have not fundamentally changed since the start of the pandemic” and that the NHS “worked with Sage” to ensure data is collected in a manner that supports their work.

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