Britain on Tuesday said it would extend reporting of deaths in the coronavirus outbreak to care homes and the wider community, after new statistics indicated the country had been under-reporting its toll.
Until now, only the deaths of people who have tested positive in hospital have been reported: 586 more deaths were reported in the period to 6pm on Monday, taking the official toll to 21,678.
But new data from the Office for National Statistics counting community fatalities in which Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate indicated a higher figure, putting Britain on track to be as badly affected as the worst-hit nations — or worse.
“From tomorrow (Wednesday), we will publish not just the number of deaths in hospital each day but the number of deaths in care homes and the community too,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock told reporters.
“This will support the ONS and CQC (Care Quality Commission) weekly publication and all add to our understanding of how this virus is spreading day by day, and inform the judgments we make to keep people safe.”
According to an AFP tally from official sources at 1pm on Tuesday, the United States had the most deaths at 56,253, followed by Italy with 26,977, Spain with 23,822 and France with 23,293, then Britain.
The latest ONS figures showed a record 22,351 deaths had been registered in England and Wales in the week ending April 17 — roughly double the five-year average and the highest weekly total since 1993.
A total of 21,284 deaths in just England were due to coronavirus, compared with the official announcement on that day on hospital deaths from National Health Service (NHS) England of 13,917.
Hancock confirmed that 4,343 had died from Covid-19 in care homes but said the proportion represented about a sixth of the total toll.
“It was just below what we would see in normal times,” he added.
But he rejected claims the government had not done enough to protect elderly residents at most risk from the disease, and social care staff working on the frontline.
“It’s something we’ve focused on right from the start (of the outbreak) and something that’s been a huge challenge throughout,” he added.
One of the difficulties in getting accurate data was due to the estimated 15,000 largely private care home sector being part of some 10,000 different organisations, he said.
The government’s national testing coordinator, John Newton, said 25,000 tests had been carried out in care homes so far.
Getting a true picture of the number of Covid-19 deaths in Britain is complicated, as the devolved administrations in Scotland and Northern Ireland report deaths outside hospitals separately.
That — and different reporting periods for registrations of deaths — has led to varying estimations in the British media.
But the statistics underline a wider problem for Britain’s government, which is under pressure to reveal its strategy for easing a national lockdown imposed on March 27.
“The scale of the deaths in care homes is becoming clear from the ONS figure and confirms our fears of a much higher level of suffering,” said James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute and University of Oxford.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who returned to work on Monday after recovering from Covid-19, indicated the stringent restrictions would not be lifted anytime soon.
Hancock said the key criteria remained getting the daily death toll and infection rates down.
The government has set itself a target of testing 100,000 people a day for Covid-19 by the end of the month, and has widened its regime to care homes, the over-65s, and people unable to work from home.
It is also looking to launch a smartphone contact tracing app in the coming weeks to alert members of the public if they have been close proximity to anyone who develops symptoms.