Alex Belfield is wrong to say that only 17,500 people died of Covid-19

31 January 2022
What was claimed

Only 17,500 people have died of Covid in England and Wales.

Our verdict

Incorrect. The true number is more than 140,000. 17,500 is roughly how many of these people did not have other pre-existing conditions.

The comedian and broadcaster Alex Belfield has claimed in a YouTube video that’s been shared on Facebook that “only 17,500 people have died of [Covid-19]”.

This is not true. Up to 14 January 2022, 142,576 deaths due to Covid have been registered in England and Wales alone. This means that Covid itself was the underlying cause of these people’s deaths, in the opinion of a doctor.

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What did Mr Belfield say?

In a video posted on 24 January 2022, Mr Belfield made the same claim three times in different forms.

He said that the Health Secretary Sajid Javid was “lying about the figures and saying that it’s still over 150,000 [Covid] deaths. We know that not to be true. We know it’s now 17,500.”

This 150,000 figure may be a reference to the number of people in the UK who have died within 28 days of a positive Covid test, or the number of death certificates that mention Covid, since both these measures were higher than 150,000 on 24 January.

Later, Mr Belfield said: “We know only 17,500 people have died of [Covid], who didn’t have pre-existing. That is to say they died with it, not of it, having tested positive in the last 28 days.”

Finally, he said: “We now know via that FOI that 150,000 people didn’t die of or with [Covid]. 17,000 people died without any pre-existing, having tested positive in the last 28 days.”

Why he is wrong

On each occasion, Mr Belfield seems to be referring to a Freedom of Information (FOI) response from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which has been misused in a similar way before.

This FOI response shows that 17,371 of the people who died of Covid in England and Wales up to the end of September 2021 did not have any other pre-existing conditions mentioned on their death certificates.

However, this represents only a small fraction of the total number of people who died of Covid, because most of them did have pre-existing conditions.

The ONS itself has said that claiming only 17,000 people truly died “of” Covid “is both factually incorrect and highly misleading”.

Pre-existing conditions need not be fatal

If someone with a pre-existing condition such as diabetes catches Covid and then dies, this does not automatically mean that diabetes was the “real” cause of their death. The ONS says: “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.”

The cause of death will be assessed by the doctor who completes the death certificate. Death certificates can list multiple causes, if the doctor thinks that several conditions contributed to the person’s death, but only one can be recorded as the “underlying cause”—meaning it was “the disease or injury that initiated the train of events directly leading to death”.

In 142,575 deaths registered in England and Wales up to 14 January 2022, Covid itself was recorded as the “underlying cause” of death.

Mr Belfield talks about these being deaths in people who tested positive for Covid in the previous 28 days, which is also not correct. Many of these people may have tested positive in the last 28 days of their lives, but that is not relevant to this data, which is based on death certificates which record Covid as the underlying cause.

The government publishes separate figures on the number of people who die following a positive test, regardless of what the death certificate ultimately says. This figure was over 150,000 for the whole UK on 24 January, so it may have been what Mr Belfield heard Mr Javid referring to.

The ONS has been publishing data on the pre-existing conditions of people who died of Covid regularly since the beginning of 2021.

We deserve better than bad information.

After we published this fact check, we contacted Alex Belfield to request a correction regarding this claim.

He did not respond.

The video has since been removed from Youtube.

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