A REVIEW has been ordered into how Public Health England is counting Covid deaths.

It comes after it emerged that even people who had tested positive and survived coronavirus only to be “run over a bus three months later” were being included among the daily virus fatalities.

The statistical flaws had resulted in an “over-exaggeration of Covid-associated deaths” in England, according to academics who uncovered the error.

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The PHE figures will have skewed the UK’s death toll from the virus, which currently stands at more than 45,000, but it is unclear by how much.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has ordered an “urgent review”.

The Scottish Government confirmed that only deaths which have occurred within 28 days of a positive Covid test are included in the Scottish daily count. The same is true in Wales and Northern Ireland.

There has been only one Covid death recorded in Scotland in past week, compared to 16 yesterday alone for hospitals in England.

Professors Yoon Loke, from the University of East Anglia, and Carl Heneghan, from the Oxford University, began investigating the numbers after noticing that they fluctuated substantially day to day. In a blog entitled ‘Why no-one can ever recover from Covid-19 in England – a statistical anomaly’, Professors Loke and Heneghan said more robust data is needed.

They argued PHE counts deaths based on whether a person has ever tested positive for Covid-19, rather than limiting it to a fixed period of time.

This means anyone who has tested positive since the pandemic arrived in the UK in January is included in the death figures for England, even if they have died from something else.

They wrote: “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.

“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.

“By this PHE definition, no-one with Covid in England is allowed to ever recover from their illness.

“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 experts said this is the reason why PHE figures “vary substantially from day to day”.

They also said that about 80,000 recovered patients in the community are continuing to be monitored by PHE for the daily death statistics, even though many are elderly and may die of something else.

They concluded: “It’s time to fix this statistical flaw that leads to an over-exaggeration of Covid-associated deaths.

“One reasonable approach would be to define community Covid-related deaths as those that occurred within 21 days of a Covid positive test result.

“In summary, PHE’s definition of the daily death figures means everyone who has ever had Covid at any time must die with Covid too.

“So, the Covid death toll in Britain up to July 2020 will eventually exceed 290,000, if the follow-up of every test-positive patient is of long enough duration.”

The experts said the flaw had resulted in England’s Covid-19 death toll looking substantially worse than the other UK nations, although experts cautioned that excess deaths will be a more accurate long-term measure for the impact of the pandemic.

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To date, according to PHE data, England has had 40,640 Covid deaths, compared to 2,491 in Scotland.

On the Government death statistics website for England, the issue was acknowledged in a statement saying: “Deaths are counted where a lab-confirmed positive coronavirus test result is reported in any setting.

“This means that not all deaths reported here are caused by coronavirus.”

PHE said it could not be ruled out that Covid-19 was a contributory factor in some deaths.

Dr Susan Hopkins, PHE’s incident director, said: “Although it may seem straightforward, there is no World Health Organisation agreed method of counting deaths from Covid-19.

“In England, we count all those that have died who had a positive Covid-19 test at any point, to ensure our data is as complete as possible.

“We must remember this is a new and emerging infection and there is increasing evidence of long-term health problems for some of those affected.

“Whilst this knowledge is growing, now is the right time to review how deaths are calculated.”

Christina Pagel, a mathematician and professor of operational research at University College London and a member of the Independent Sage group, said the way PHE calculates data could become an issue as time goes on but she did not believe there had been a “massive distortion”.

She added: “For Matt Hancock to suddenly be launching a massive inquiry is odd.

“The Department of Health website says quite clearly how each country is doing its death calculations, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to him.

“That’s what I find really odd.”

The PHE data – like the confirmed death statistics issued by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon during the daily briefings – have generally been considered to underestimate the number of deaths from Covid-19 since they only include cases where a positive test had been returned.

Death counts based on death certificates where the virus is mentioned – in England, from the weekly release by the Office for National Statistics, and National Records of Scotland – is seen as a more accurate picture of the death toll since it includes people with probable symptoms who had not been tested.

This is particularly important in relation to care homes, where it may be impractical or too unpleasant for elderly residents to be swabbed.

To date, NRS estimates there have been 4,187 Covid deaths in Scotland, with ONS putting the figures at 50,548 for England and Wales.

However, excess deaths – which count the total number of people dying above a five-year average, from all causes – are seen as the fairest way of measuring the impact of a pandemic on a given population.

On this measure, Scotland’s death rate has been 33% above average compared to 44% England and Wales.