Covid death rates were not a ‘lie’

10 January 2023
What was claimed

The authorities lied about the Covid-19 death rates. Initially it was any death within 60 days of a positive test then 28 days.

Our verdict

The UK and devolved governments have counted Covid-19 deaths reliably since early in the pandemic by tracking mentions of the disease on death certificates. More immediate measures of the number of deaths following positive tests were also used. None of this means the authorities were lying.

What was claimed

Hardly anyone died solely of Covid-19.

Our verdict

Over 210,000 people have died of Covid-19 in the UK. In England and Wales, 160,000 have died with Covid-19 as the sole underlying cause. People who had pre-existing conditions mentioned on their death certificates still died of Covid-19. Conditions like diabetes, which is chronic and is often also mentioned on death certificates of people who died of Covid-19, were not necessarily going to cause that person’s death.

A post on Facebook makes some false and potentially misleading claims about the Covid-19 pandemic, which it says are reasons for not getting vaccinated. 

In particular, it falsely claims that the death rates were “lied about” and that hardly anyone died “solely” of Covid-19.

“They lied about the death rates - any death within 60 days initially, & 28 days subsequently of a positive test using a not fit for purpose diagnostic tool.”

Covid-19 death rates are not only measured by counting the number of deaths after a positive test. In England and Wales, the number of people dying with Covid-19 mentioned on their death certificate, whether as the single underlying cause or as a contributory cause, has been published weekly since early in the pandemic. Each cause of death is assessed by a doctor familiar with the case. 

Other, more immediate measures were also used during the pandemic. Initially, what Public Health England then called the total number of deaths was how many people died in hospital after a positive test. Then the total number of deaths was changed to reflect how many people had died after a positive test in more locations.

Later, in August 2020, all four nations of the UK announced that each day they would publish the number of deaths that occurred within 28 days of a positive lab-confirmed Covid test. In a statement, the Department of Health Social Care said this was to “provide accurate data on the immediate impact of recent epidemic activity”.

There were then two measures updated daily: one for deaths up to 28 days following a positive test, and the second of deaths up to 60 days after a positive test, including those over 60 days later if Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.

None of these amounted to a ‘lie’ about the Covid death rates. There were just several different measures being used for different reasons. Nor do they vary very much. In England, at the time of writing, the dashboard reports 173,821 deaths within 28 days of a positive test, and 177,152 deaths with Covid-19 mentioned on the death certificate.

Across the UK there were 210,457 deaths as of 2 December 2022, shortly before the Facebook post was published, where the person’s death certificate mentioned COVID-19 as one of the causes.

The PCR tests used to confirm Covid-19 cases were also highly accurate.

“Hardly anyone had died solely of covid.”

This is false. In England and Wales, 161,938 people have died as of November 2022 (shortly before the Facebook post was published) with Covid-19 as the single underlying cause on their death certificate. 

We have checked claims like this before. In January 2022, broadcaster Dan Wootton claimed that “just 17,371” had died of Covid-19. But that figure is how many people died of Covid-19 and had no pre-existing conditions listed on their death certificate in England and Wales by the end of September 2021. The ONS said that use of this figure was “highly misleading”

The fact that people who died may have had pre-existing conditions does not erase the fact that they died of Covid-19. As the ONS said, “Regardless of the cause of death, it is very common for the person dying to have a pre-existing health condition of some sort, but this does not mean that the person was at imminent risk of dying from that condition, or even considered to have a reduced life expectancy.

“For those people dying from COVID-19, the most common pre-existing condition was diabetes. Diabetes is a chronic condition, that is serious and may make a person more vulnerable to other health problems, but this does not mean they were at risk of dying from it.”

Also, a pre-existing condition is not the same as an underlying cause, which is defined as “the disease or injury that initiated the train of events directly leading to death.”

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PCR cycles and the ‘disappearance’ of flu

The post says: “They changed the PCR cycles to find cases and justify lockdowns.”

We’ve often seen misinformation about the number of PCR cycles used to detect cases of Covid-19.

PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, is a common scientific method where specific genetic material in a sample is replicated to the point that it becomes detectable. PCR tests for Covid-19 work by detecting the RNA (genetic material) of the virus that causes it.

The reference to “cycles” describes the number of times the replication part of the PCR process is repeated, so that the specific genetic material, if present, can be detected. The cycle threshold is the number of cycles at which the virus is detected in the sample. 

Public Health England previously said that, typically, a maximum of 40 cycles are conducted when testing for SARS-CoV-2 and at least one NHS trust has previously said it runs 45 cycles on its PCR tests

The maximum number of cycles done may differ between labs because of how exactly they do PCR. It’s true that at higher cycles PCR tests are more likely to detect people with low levels of the virus, which might indicate that they are early or late in their infection. This does not mean that the test result is invalid or such cases aren’t genuine.

The post also claims: “The Flu disappeared.”

This has also been a relatively common claim during the pandemic, often to falsely argue that flu had been ‘rebranded’ as Covid-19. 

Deaths from flu did fall substantially during the pandemic, but they did not ‘disappear’ altogether. In England and Wales, there were 35 deaths identified as being due to influenza in 2021.

This is likely a major underestimate as the flu may have been an important factor in many other deaths. For example, influenza is typically also a major cause of pneumonia, which killed over 16,000 people in 2021, but in most cases, the pathogen which caused pneumonia is not identified.   

While it’s true that deaths from flu and pneumonia in those winters were well below levels seen before the pandemic, this is probably because lockdowns and other measures put in place to curb the spread of coronavirus also reduced the spread of flu.

Flu and Covid-19 are not caused by the same pathogen (the organism that causes disease), and are therefore distinct illnesses. Covid-19 is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and ‘flu’ is caused by different types of influenza virus.

Image courtesy of Towfiqu barbhuiya

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