There has been considerable coverage of a Freedom of Information response published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). It shows death registrations for 2020 and 2021 (provisional) that were due to COVID-19 and were recorded without any pre-existing conditions, in England and Wales.  

These figures have been available in ONS outputs but have seen increased attention following their use in response to the question posed to ONS. This adds to an already complex landscape of data about deaths relating to COVID-19. This complexity means that there is a need for more explanation and context to aid appropriate interpretation.  

It is good that ONS has now clarified the data in its blog: “to say only 17,000 people have died from COVID-19 is highly misleading”. This gives more context to the figures and is a good example of a producer of statistics stepping in to address the misuse of statistics in public debate.  

This complements a range of outputs from ONS and others referencing different measures of deaths, including:  

  • deaths due to COVID-19 – deaths for which COVID-19 was the underlying cause;  
  • deaths involving COVID-19 – all deaths that had COVID-19 mentioned on the death certificate, whether as an underlying cause or as contributing to the death;  
  • deaths with COVID-19 –  those who have died while having a COVID-19 infection whether or not COVID-19 contributed; and 
  • excess deaths – a broader measure which looks at the change in deaths because of the pandemic, whether or not due to a COVID-19 infection. 

In January 2021 OSR published a blog: Which COVID-19 deaths figures should I be looking at. While the data have been updated many of the issues remain relevant.   

As set out in the Code of Practice for Statistics, “Transparency […] is at the core of many of the Code’s practices, explaining what judgements producers have made about the data, methods, and their strengths and limitations, as well as what the statistics tell us about the world. These explanations are as important as the numbers themselves.” 

Ed Humpherson, Director General for Regulation, said:

“this is a good example of a producer standing up for its statistics, being visible, and trying to prevent misuse and misunderstanding. This is something we expect as part of meeting the standards of the Code of Practice.”