The government has paused announcing daily death toll figures from coronavirus – amid concerns over their accuracy.
A review has been launched after experts said the number of fatalities could be over-exaggerated – but the move had been branded “odd”.
Academics have said the way that Public Health England(PHE) calculates the data means they might look worse there than in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
In a statement, the Department for Health and Social Care said: “The Secretary of State has today, 17 July, asked PHE to urgently review their estimation of daily death statistics.
“Currently the daily deaths measure counts all people who have tested positive for coronavirus and since died, with no cut-off between time of testing and date of death.
“There have been claims that the lack of cut-off may distort the current daily deaths number.
“We are therefore pausing the publication of the daily figure while this is resolved.”
Yesterday a further 114 deaths were announced.
England’s figures are understood to include anyone who has ever tested positive for Covid-19 – regardless of whether they died for another reason.
An insider told the Evening Standard: A source said: “It turns out you could have been tested positive in February, recovered, then hit by a bus in July and you’d be recorded as a covid death.”
However, the number of excess deaths – referring to this year’s number of deaths compared to the recent years – is still 65,000 more than the five year average.
Britain has been the European country worst hit by the virus, with an official death toll of more 45,000.
But the government has said international comparisons are misleading because countries record coronavirus deaths differently.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock yesterday ordered a review into the PHE’s reporting after the academics said patients who tested positive for coronavirus, but were successfully treated, would still be counted as dying from the virus.
Prof Carl Heneghan from the University of Oxford, told the BBC: “By this PHE definition, no one with Covid in England is allowed to ever recover from their illness.
“We need correct and accurate statistics so we can really understand the trend – otherwise it’s very difficult to know what’s going on.”
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 that 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 (UCL) 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.”
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