Matt Hancock has ordered an urgent review into how Public Health England (PHE) calculates daily Covid-19 death figures.
It comes after scientists said they believed PHE was “over-exaggerating” the daily coronavirus death toll, by counting people if they die of any cause at any time after testing positive for the disease.
Professor Yoon K Loke, of the University of East Anglia, and Carl Heneghan, professor of evidence-based medicine at the Nuffield Department of Primary Care, said on Thursday night that a “statistical flaw” in the way PHE compiles data on deaths created a disparity in figures published by the different UK nations.
“It seems that PHE regularly looks for people on the NHS database who have ever tested positive, and simply checks to see if they are still alive or not,” 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.”
The experts said the issue relates to England because Scotland and Northern Ireland use a 28-day cut-off.
“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,” added professors Loke and Heneghan.
On the government death statistics website for England, the issue is acknowledged, 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.”
The experts said this is the reason why PHE figures “vary substantially from day to day” and said that about 80,000 recovered patients in the community were still being monitored by PHE for the daily death statistics, even though many are elderly and may die of other causes.
They suggested defining community coronavirus-related deaths as “those that occurred within 21 days of a Covid-positive test result” to fix the flaw.
PHE said it could not be ruled out that coronavirus was a contributory factor in some deaths.
Dr Susan Hopkins, the body’s incident director, said in a statement: “Although it may seem straightforward, there is no WHO-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.”