Government Faces Questions Over Discrepancies In Number Of Coronavirus-Related Deaths

The running total from the Department of Health and Social Care has never once matched the figures released by England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

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The government is facing questions over a series of apparent discrepancies in the number of people dying after testing positive for coronavirus each day as the crisis unfolds.

As of last week, 2pm has been the daily time that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) is meant to announce how many people with confirmed Covid-19 have died in hospital.

The figures are supposed to account for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as a whole, accurate as of 5pm the previous day in order to give the department enough time to collate and verify the reports.

It is perhaps the single most important number in measuring the disease’s effect on the UK. As tech entrepreneur Gruff Davies told HuffPost UK last week: “Deaths is the only reliable statistic. [...] The infection rates are basically too unreliable and too volatile.”

But despite the huge significance of the figure, the number from the DHSC has never once matched the individual reports from public health bosses in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

The total number of deaths across the UK is announced in two ways: through the DHSC’s data release at 2pm, and in separate announcements from each of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom, which come throughout the day (though also mostly clustered around 2pm).

Every day these figures fail to align. On April 2, the DHSC said that, as of 5pm the previous day, 2,921 people had died from coronavirus. Yet adding England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland’s totals gave a total of 2,977 deaths – some 56 extra.

A DHSC spokesperson said each devolved administration actually releases those figures at slightly different times, suggesting they might not all cover the period 5pm to 5pm. Northern Ireland, sure enough, says the figures it releases publicly each day cover the 24 hours to 9.30am. Neither Scotland nor Wales responded to HuffPost UK’s requests for clarification.

The DHSC spokesperson added that the four different nations each made “late adjustments to the figures as further quality assurance is necessary before publication” on occasion, suggesting the DHSC data could be out of date compared with the devolved authorities.

But – with the exception of April 1 – it actually appears that for every day in the week ending April 3 the Scottish and Northern Irish figures have simply been omitted from each day’s overall DHSC releases, with the department total precisely matching the sum of the England and Wales figures.

On April 1, however, the DHSC’s figure was higher than the sum of the four totals announced by each devolved authority, with the DHSC saying that 2,352 people had died while the total added from the four devolved authorities fell short by 11, coming in at 2,341.

Coronavirus death figures have become a vital marker – but the process of collating them is far from straightforward.
Coronavirus death figures have become a vital marker – but the process of collating them is far from straightforward.
Stefan Rousseau - PA Images via Getty Images

To make things even worse, it’s not just the totals that don’t line up.

The actual daily increase in the number of deaths, perhaps the figure that is most keenly awaited, also fails to align with that calculated from the reports from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

On April 3, the DHSC said there had been an increase of 684 deaths between 5pm on April 1 and 5pm on April 2. But the totals from the four authorities showed an increase of 686.

The previous day there was a discrepancy of 67 deaths, with DHSC reporting an increase of 569, and the devolved authorities a total of 636. And on April 1 the DHSC said there had been an increase of 563, while the four authorities amounted to a total of 533, a discrepancy of 30.

Then there’s timing. The DHSC is right to point out that the four nations report at, and collect data up to, different times – but the government often can’t keep to its own deadline, either.

On March 26 it was announced that figures would be published for the entire UK at 2pm, covering 24 hours up to 5pm the previous day.

Despite the change, which was introduced to allow more time for verification of statistics, this new timetable has been met just once – on March 29.

A spokesperson for the department said the delays, sometimes as long as three hours, had been caused by “operational” issues.

“We are completely transparent about how we are collating data,” they added.

“DHSC publishes daily figures to show the number of deaths of patients who have tested positive for Covid-19 in hospital. This is the best way to get consistent, up to date and reliable daily figures so that people can track the development of the coronavirus outbreak in the UK.

“We work hard to ensure that data released is timely and accurate. On occasion, there are late adjustments to the figures as further quality assurance is necessary before publication.’’

Editor’s note: This article, originally published on April 3, ran with the headline: “Government Unable To Explain Discrepancies In Number Of Coronavirus-Related Deaths”. After publication, the department contacted HuffPost UK with further information, and the headline has been amended to reflect this.