Britain today announced 20 more coronavirus deaths in the preliminary toll amid claims the government's official count of new fatalities is too high.
Department of Health chiefs have yet to confirm the final daily figure, which is often much higher because it takes into account lab-confirmed fatalities in all settings. The early count — which only includes a fraction of the Covid-19 deaths in England — is calculated by adding up updates declared by each of the home nations.
NHS England today posted 19 deaths in hospitals across the country. One fatality was recorded in all settings in Scotland, ending its seven-day spell without any victims. None were registered in Wales or Northern Ireland.
Britain's official Covid-19 death toll topped 45,000 yesterday officials recorded just 85 more victims — taking the rolling average of daily deaths down to 75. During the height of the crisis, more than 1,000 Britons were dying of coronavirus each day.
Two top Oxford University statisticians today claimed the government is inflating the actual daily death toll and said fewer than 40 people are actually succumbing to the illness every day.
Dr Jason Oke and Professor Carl Heneghan said figures from Public Health England — which are published each day by the Department of Health — were misleading because officials lump historical deaths onto random days — and include fatalities that happened weeks or even months ago.
It comes as data today suggested Britain's coronavirus outbreak may be growing following a spike in the number of people with symptoms over the past week. King's College London 's COVID Symptom Tracker app estimates 2,100 people are catching the virus in the community every day — up from 1,400 last week.
Data shows that the trend of deaths charted by when they actually happened (dotted blue line), not when the paperwork was finished, is significantly lower than the number of deaths being announced by the Department of Health (red line)
Dr Jason Oke and Professor Carl Heneghan, from the University of Oxford, said death figures published by Public Health England contained 'inaccuracies' and could cause confusion.
HOW MANY PEOPLE HAVE REALLY DIED OF THE CORONAVIRUS IN THE UK?
Department of Health: 45,053
Department of Health's latest death count for all settings (as of 9am, July 15) stands at 45,053.
The daily data does not represent how many Covid-19 patients died within the last 24 hours — it is only how many fatalities have been reported and registered with the authorities.
It also only takes into account patients who tested positive for the virus, as opposed to deaths suspected to be down to the coronavirus.
National statistical bodies: 55,216
Data compiled by the statistical bodies of each of the home nations show 55,216 people died of either confirmed or suspected Covid-19 across the UK by the end of May.
The Office for National Statistics yesterday confirmed that 50,219 people in England and Wales died with confirmed or suspected Covid-19 by June 19.
The number of coronavirus deaths was 824 by the same day in Northern Ireland, according to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA).
National Records Scotland — which collects statistics north of the border — said 4,173 people had died across the country by June 22.
Their tallies are always 10 days behind the Department of Health (DH) because they wait until as many fatalities as possible for each date have been counted, to avoid having to revise their statistics.
Excess deaths: 65,249
The total number of excess deaths has now passed 65,000.
Excess deaths are considered to be an accurate measure of the number of people killed by the pandemic because they include a broader spectrum of victims.
As well as including people who may have died with Covid-19 without ever being tested, the data also shows how many more people died because their medical treatment was postponed, for example, or who didn't or couldn't get to hospital when they were seriously ill.
Data from England and Wales shows there has been an extra 59,324 deaths between March 15 and June 12, as well as 4,924 in Scotland between March 10 and June 22 and 1,001 in Northern Ireland between March 28 and June 26.
Department of Health figures released yesterday showed 130,000 tests were carried out or posted the day before. The number includes antibody tests for frontline NHS and care workers.
But bosses again refused to say how many people were tested, meaning the exact number of Brits who have been swabbed for the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been a mystery for a month — since May 22.
Health chiefs also reported 538 more cases of Covid-19. Government statistics show the official size of the UK's outbreak now stands at 291,911 cases.
But the actual size of the outbreak, which began to spiral out of control in March, is estimated to be in the millions, based on antibody testing data.
It means the rolling average of daily cases dropped to 584 — 7 per cent higher than the 546 average cases figure recorded last Wednesday.
The daily death data does not represent how many Covid-19 patients died within the last 24 hours — it is only how many fatalities have been reported and registered with the authorities.
The data does not always match updates provided by the home nations. Department of Health officials work off a different time cut-off, meaning daily updates from Scotland as well as Northern Ireland are always out of sync.
And the count announced by NHS England every afternoon — which only takes into account deaths in hospitals — does not match up with the DH figures because they work off a different recording system.
For instance, some deaths announced by NHS England bosses will have already been counted by the Department of Health, which records fatalities 'as soon as they are available'.
More than 1,000 infected Brits died each day during the darkest days of the crisis in mid-April but the number of victims had been dropping by around 20 to 30 per cent week-on-week since the start of May.
It comes as Dr Oke and Professor Heneghan claimed deaths are still falling — even if at a slower rate than they were earlier in the crisis.
The Government has pointed out in the past that it counts deaths on the date that the paperwork is completed, not when the person actually died, which can make day-by-day figures inaccurate.
The Oxford pair said Number 10 should make it clearer when people actually died so that when there are one-day spikes — the 138 deaths announced on Tuesday, for example — it doesn't look like the outbreak is getting worse.
Writing in a blog Dr Oke and Professor Heneghan said: 'What has become apparent in recent weeks is the growing disparity between the numbers released by ONS [Office for National Statistics] and those reported by Public Health England which are widely disseminated in the media.'
They said PHE's figures 'vary substantially from day to day' and explained: 'This variation is most likely due to the appearance of "historic" deaths that have occurred weeks before, but for some reason unknown to us, get reported in batches on particular days.
'To counter this variation, a moving average smooths the trend, but even this is at odds with the ONS data...
'We can surmise that the total number of deaths in all settings is approximately 40 per day, much closer to the ONS numbers.'
ONS data shows that significantly more people have died than the Department of Health has counted. This is thought to be largely because it only counted people who tested positive but wouldn't let care home residents have tests during the peak of the outbreak
To explain their calculations Dr Oke and Professor Heneghan, from the university's Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, compared death tolls recorded by Public Health England (PHE) and the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
PHE counts only deaths in people who tested positive for Covid-19, which means it is thought to have missed out thousands of people at the start of the epidemic.
The ONS, meanwhile, counts anyone who has the disease mentioned on their death certificate, whether they were tested or not.
Dr Oke and Professor Heneghan said even PHE's moving average, which is intended to smooth out dips and spikes around the weekends, is too high.
It was 103 for June 30, they pointed out, but the ONS counted 101 deaths (by actual date of death) on June 30 and July 1 combined — making the two-day average 51.
They said: 'The PHE figures average has been consistently higher than ONS for some time.'
The pair also pointed out the death counts from NHS England, which are accurate around three days after the date in question, are too low to match PHE.
According to the ONS, hospital fatalities now make up around 60 per cent of all deaths that happen on any given day.
On June 30, NHS England recorded 27 fatalities. If this was 60 per cent of all deaths that happened on that day the total number would be 45.
But the Department of Health, using PHE's data, announced 115 more deaths on that day.
Professor Heneghan and Dr Oke acknowledged that the official death counts are constantly backdating deaths so do not reflect the day they're announced, but suggest that historic fatalities are being spread out.
'Because of the inaccuracies in PHE data we recommend using ONS data and the NHS England data to understand the trends in deaths over time,' they wrote.
'To reduce confusion we require all deaths reported by PHE to include when they occurred as opposed to the day of reporting.'
MailOnline has contacted the Department of Health for comment.