On 19th August, England passed a significant milestone, which since today we can report with some confidence: there were zero reported deaths following a positive Covid-19 test in hospitals or other settings, for the first time since 7th March.
This is a remarkable event, but check the homepage of the BBC or any other mainstream publication and there is no mention of it at all. For months, the country was battered by daily headlines about Covid deaths, but with this good news comes no commensurate coverage.
This is especially surprising given that the daily hospital deaths report has been the single most reliable indicator of progress throughout the coronavirus crisis. From early April, I started tweeting daily updates on English hospital deaths by the actual date of death, as provided by NHS England. As deaths can take some time to be reported, this number does not usually reach something close to its final total until five days later.
This method meant that as early as the 10th April, we could identify that deaths had probably already peaked two days earlier. On 15th April, the Chief Medical Officer told the daily press conference that deaths were still increasing despite the fact that the date-of-death data told us unambiguously that we had passed the peak of deaths a week earlier.
The date-of-death numbers have been in single figures more often than not since the end of July, a period when the now-discredited Public Health England deaths measure was still reporting over 50 deaths per day and giving the false impression that easing restrictions had stopped deaths decreasing.
So the first day of zero reported deaths is a truly significant event. Lockdown was originally introduced in the middle of a crisis to stop the NHS being overwhelmed, but we are now in a very different situation: Weekly deaths involving flu and pneumonia are now over 6 times the number involving coronavirus, and Covid-19 hospitalisations have come down dramatically from a peak of more than 3,000 on the 1 April to an average of 50 per day now.
In light of this progress, it is frustrating that decisions over local restriction measures are focusing so much on reported new cases. As Carl Heneghan of the Oxford Centre for Evidence Based Medicine has explained, new case data are hard to interpret: not only do increased cases partly reflect the huge increase in testing, but also tests are likely to pick up some cases where the person is no longer infectious.
There will still be Covid-related deaths for some time to come and each one is of course an individual tragedy. It may even be that one or more will be reported later for 19th August. Nevertheless, it is essential that we reset our attitude towards coronavirus because our measures to fight the virus can no longer justify putting children’s education, the arts, sport, our economy and normal human interactions on hold.
Now is the time for us to rediscover how to live life together to the full. Perhaps if the media played its role in reporting the news — good or bad — we might reach that goal faster.
Update: Sadly — as we said was possible — a single death has been added to the NHS England figures for the 19th August in West Herts