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Statistical anomalies surrounding Covid infections and deaths: how reliable are the data?

As intrusive measures such as mobile tracing apps are being discussed to fight Covid-19, a debate on their usefulness and proportionality is only possible if the data regarding corona infections and deaths are reliable. After the numbers collected by the Public Health England were recently challenged, the UK governments has asked this body to urgently review the way daily statistics are reported and the publication of daily figures will be paused while this review takes place.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control continues to publish daily updates on the number of Covid-19 infections and deaths. According to its calculation, Europe has suffered 199,754 deaths, with the five countries reporting most deaths being the UK (45,273), Italy (35,042), France (30,152), Spain (28,420) and Russia (12,342).

Based on these statistics the Centre also develops policy recommendations. Thus, in June a technical report on mobile tracing apps was published which intended “to facilitate the dialogue between public health authorities and app developers to ensure that the main epidemiological and operational considerations are taken into account, while also understanding the technological limitations”.

Leaving aside questions of desirability and privacy protection, such policy recommendations can only be properly assessed if based on correct data. In a blog post “Why no-one can ever recover from Covid-19 in England – a statistical anomaly”, professors Yoon K Loke and Carl Heneghan wonder why Wales and Scotland show reassuring recoveries after reporting days with no Covid-associated deaths, while figures in England have demonstrated a daily toll of more than 100 such deaths several days a week. They note that the body publishing the statistics, the Public Health England (PHE), “does not appear to consider how long ago the Covid test result was, nor whether the person has been successfully treated in hospital and discharged to the community”. Following this approach, no one can indeed ever recover from Covid-19: anyone who has tested Covid positive but subsequently died at a later date of any cause will be included on the PHE Covid death figures. To reinforce their point, the scholars note that “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”.

The statistical discrepancies between different regions has made the UK government publish a statement saying that the Secretary of State has asked the PHE to urgently review the way daily statistics are reported. The publication of daily figures will be paused while this review takes place.

Author: Olivier Vonk

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