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The government has been unable to explain a series of discrepancies in the number of people dying after testing positive for coronavirus each day as the crisis unfolds.
As of last week, 2pm has been the daily time that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) is meant to announce how many people with confirmed Covid-19 have died in hospital.
The figures are supposed to account for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as a whole, accurate as of 5pm the previous day in order to give the department enough time to collate and verify the reports.
It is perhaps the single most important number in measuring the disease’s effect on the UK. As tech entrepreneur Gruff Davies told HuffPost UK last week: “Deaths is the only reliable statistic. […] The infection rates are basically too unreliable and too volatile.”
But despite the huge significance of the figure, the number from the DHSC has never once matched the individual reports from public health bosses in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.
The total number of deaths across the UK is announced in two ways: through the DHSC’s data release at 2pm, and in separate announcements from each of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom, which come throughout the day (though also mostly clustered around 2pm).
Every day these figures fail to align. On Thursday, the DHSC said that, as of 5pm the previous day, 2,921 people had died from coronavirus. Yet adding England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland’s totals gave a total of 2,977 deaths – some 56 extra.
A DHSC spokesperson pointed out that each devolved administration actually releases those figures at slightly different times, suggesting they might not all cover the period 5pm to 5pm.
But – with the exception of Wednesday this week – it actually appears the Scottish and Northern Irish figures have simply been omitted from each day’s overall DHSC releases, with the department total precisely matching the sum of the England and Wales figures.
On Wednesday, however, the DHSC’s figure was higher than the sum of the four totals announced by each devolved authority, with the DHSC saying that 2,352 people had died while the total added from the four devolved authorities fell short by 11, coming in at 2,341.
The DHSC has not responded to HuffPost UK’s request for an explanation on how these inconsistencies appeared, pointing only to the different times that each devolved administration released its own data.
To make things even worse, it’s not just the totals that don’t line up.
The actual daily increase in the number of deaths, perhaps the figure that is most keenly awaited, also fails to align with that calculated from the reports from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
On Friday, the DHSC said there had been an increase of 684 deaths between 5pm Wednesday and 5pm Thursday. But the totals from the four authorities showed an increase of 686. Yet the previous day there was a discrepancy of 67 deaths, with DHSC reporting an increase of 569, and the devolved authorities a total of 636. And on Wednesday the DHSC said there had been an increase of 563, while the four authorities amounted to a total of 533, a discrepancy of 30.
Then there’s timing. The DHSC is right to point out that the four nations report at different times – but the government often can’t keep to its own deadline.
Last week it was announced that figures would be published for the entire UK at 2pm, covering 24 hours up to 5pm the previous day.
Despite the change, which was introduced to allow more time for verification of statistics, this new timetable hasn’t always been met.
On Monday at 2pm the department put out a note stating that the statistics would be released later that afternoon, providing no reason for the delay but stating: “Today’s figures will be published later this afternoon.”
The same thing happened on Tuesday, despite the fact that on both days the four nations had reported their own totals hours earlier.
A spokesperson for the department said the delay had been caused by “operational” issues.