by Freddie Sayers
Friday, 17
July 2020

Prof Carl Heneghan: can we trust the Covid-19 death numbers?

by Freddie Sayers

Professor Carl Heneghan is Director of the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine at Oxford University, and has been paying close attention to the Covid-19 statistics. In a post yesterday evening he revealed an extraordinary detail: the Public Health England daily death totals announced to the media include anyone who has ever tested positive for Covid-19 — even if they recovered completely.

Earlier this week we completed a wide-ranging interview with Professor Heneghan and his CEBM colleague Tom Jefferson on the current state of the Covid-19 pandemic, which we’ll be publishing shortly.

But I caught up with Prof Heneghan this morning just to hear more about this latest development. Have a watch.

Key quotes:

  • There was “massive confusion” about different Covid data between England’s health bodies. “Public Health England figures are about double the ONS figures because PHE are reporting anybody who has had a positive Covid death in the past… This will get increasingly confusing as we go into the next Winter because there could be a new outbreak and new deaths while also still reporting on historical deaths… This is a problem for epidemiologists and media… ”
  • Even a “28 period cut-off is still not ideal for accurate death numbers because there is “immediate cause and underlying cause… Immediate cause means you’ve had Covid within 21 days but outside of that, it becomes the underlying cause — something that contributed to your death but wasn’t a direct cause. A 21 day cut-off would be helpful because it gives a clearer understanding of that distinction”
  • “We follow excess deaths which is the most accurate information about what’s going on at that moment, but it can’t tell you what those deaths are caused by” (i.e. people not coming forward with heart attacks etc)
  • “There’s an important distinction between lives lost and life years lost. One of the things we’ll be watching very closely over the next six months is how many people would have actually died in the next six months… That’s where the excess deaths really matter. If we start to see it trend significantly under for the next few months, we’ll start to come forward with information that suggests there was a group of vulnerable people that any respiratory infection would have shortened their life.”
  • “In the media you’ll always hear about catastrophe and the consequences of that. One of the things we notice is that when you don’t hear anything that usually means there’s good news happening. So when Sweden looks worse you hear about it but when it’s not so bad, like now, you never see it in the media.”

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