There are multiple sources of information on deaths related to COVID-19 in the public domain. There are valid reasons for this range of figures which reflect the variety of uses of these data and the various methods and assumptions underlying them. However, publication of multiple sources with different counts has the potential to cause confusion and at worst mislead. Some factors causing differences in counts are set out, but the amount each factor contributes to the differences does not appear to be fully understood and needs to be more clearly explained.
For England, there are three main sources of data on daily deaths related to COVID-19:
- NHS England (NHSE) Hospital deaths.
- Public Health England (PHE) Surveillance data
- Office for National Statistics (ONS) Weekly deaths
In all three cases the organisations make information available on when deaths have been reported or registered as well as the date the death occurred. Each organisation also publishes information on methods and definitions. However, the scale of the impact of some of the methods choices and data sources is not clear.
It is positive to see organisations trying to better understand these data. Planned analysis by ONS and PHE will look at differences between published figures. This should offer a valuable insight into what is driving the differences and whether there are any changes needed in the production or interpretation of any of these statistics.
It is critical that there is greater transparency around how estimates are produced and what is driving differences between the sources. Statisticians across relevant bodies must take a lead in understanding these data and communicating weaknesses, limitations and a coherent narrative. This will improve confidence in the data and decisions made on the basis of these data.
We have today also published a blog setting out the issues between data sources in more detail and seeking greater clarity.