Covid-19 is the underlying cause of death for most people who die with it

26 June 2020
What was claimed

According to NHS England figures, the number of people whose death certificates show death from only coronavirus, i.e. no pre-existing condition, is 1,265.

Our verdict

This was the correct number of Covid-19 deaths (but only among hospital patients) where no pre-existing condition was reported, up to 26 May. But this data isn’t the deaths “only” from coronavirus and doesn’t tell us what the underlying cause of death was. Covid-19 death was determined by a positive test result or where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.

A post shared on Facebook claims that NHS England data shows that there have been 1,265 deaths where the death certificates “shows death from ONLY coronavirus, i.e. No pre-existing condition”. This number is then compared to the total number of Covid-19 reported deaths, saying, “that’s a bloody long way off 40,000”.

This was the correct figure for Covid-19 related deaths among patients with no pre-existing conditions around the time the post was made. But some of the other details in the post aren't quite right.

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NHS England statistics tell us about Covid-19 hospital deaths

There were 1,265 Covid-19 related deaths among patients with no pre-existing conditions in English hospitals up to 5pm on 26 May.

There were 40,000 deaths of people with Covid-19 as of 5 June across the whole of the UK, including deaths outside hospitals. 

So this isn't a particularly appropriate comparison as the figures are for different periods of time, locations and countries. 

There were 26,050 deaths in English hospitals up to 5pm on 26 May, and that figure is comparable with the 1,265 who died with no pre-existing conditions.

These statistics do not tell us about the underlying cause of death

Overall, the post could be interpreted as saying that only patients with no pre-existing conditions died from the new coronavirus. That’s not correct.

These statistics include any deaths in hospital among patients that tested positive for Covid-19 and any deaths where Covid-19 was listed on their death certificate. Whilst it is probable that most people without a pre-existing condition had Covid-19 as the main cause of death, it cannot be said that people with pre-existing conditions did not die directly due to Covid-19. 

However, the NHS England statistics do not tell us whether Covid-19 was the underlying cause of death (underlying cause refers to the disease “that initiated the train of events directly leading to death”).

There is other available data, published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), that suggests that a very high proportion of people included in Covid-19 mortality statistics have Covid-19 as the underlying cause of death. 

Of the 46,687 deaths involving Covid-19 between 1 March and 31 May 2020 and registered up to 6 June 2020 in England and Wales, 94% had Covid-19 assigned as the underlying cause of death. 

Finally, the post also claims that NHS England identifies Covid-19 deaths from death certificates. This is only partially correct as these statistics also include deaths among patients who tested positive for Covid-19 at the time of death but may not have Covid-19 included on their death certificate.

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