We’ve seen many claims on Facebook and on Instagram that just 13,844 people in England and Wales were infected with Covid-19 in 2020. Readers have also asked us to look into it.
This claim is not true. It’s a misunderstanding of data for the statutory notifications of infectious diseases (NOIDs).
Just over 2.4 million people in England and Wales tested positive for Covid in 2020. We do not know the total number who have been infected, but it is probably much higher, because many people are not tested.
What are NOIDs?
Doctors have a legal duty to inform their local authority or Health Protection Team when they come across a case of an important infectious disease, or if they suspect one.
The government publishes a list of the diseases that are “notifiable” in this way. Most of them are familiar infections, like measles, that need to be monitored to give an early warning of a possible outbreak. On 5 March last year Covid was added to the list.
If a laboratory in England identifies an important infectious “agent”—ie the germ that causes an infectious disease—then it too must notify Public Health England (PHE).
Every week, PHE publishes the latest data it has collected, both for diseases, and for infectious agents.
This system is known as NOIDs.
A PHE spokesperson told us: “NOIDS reports are simply one route for clinicians to report suspected cases of COVID-19, which may or may not be subsequently confirmed. They do not in any way represent a total number of confirmed cases.”
What went wrong on social media?
Several people on social media have taken the number of times a doctor reported a suspected Covid case through NOIDs and mistakenly claimed that it shows the total number of actual Covid infections.
One Instagram post claims that “official government data proves only 13,844 people were actually infected by the disease in the whole of 2020”, citing an incorrect article which makes the same mistake by counting the number of NOIDs disease notifications, not the number of confirmed cases.
By our count, there were in fact 18,152 disease notifications of Covid through NOIDs last year. However, there were far more notifications by labs testing for SARS-CoV-2, the infectious agent that causes Covid, including 235,250 in the last week of the year alone.
People with Covid symptoms are advised to get a test, but not to visit their doctor, which may be part of the reason why doctors reported so few cases of the disease through NOIDs. Since Covid became widespread in the UK, and began to be monitored in other ways, it is also possible that doctors felt there was little need to continue notifying PHE about each case.
How many Covid cases were there?
The official source for data on confirmed Covid cases in the UK is the Coronavirus Dashboard. At the time of writing, this shows that there have been more than two and a half million cases in the UK so far, which is about 4% of the whole population.
In England and Wales in 2020 specifically, 2,436,805 cases of Covid were recorded, which is also about 4% of the population.
These are only the infections we know about, however.
Research in the summer estimated that around 6% of the population of England had Covid antibodies, meaning that they had been previously infected with the virus. The true percentage will be higher now, since not everybody who is infected makes enough antibodies to detect, and many more have been infected since the summer.