Public trust and confidence in statistics is a fundamental part of the Code of Practice for Statistics. To ensure transparent public explanation of the published sources of data on deaths from the coronavirus (COVID-19), the Office for National Statistics (ONS) worked closely with the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to publish a joint statement on 31 March 2020 explaining the differences between figures published by DHSC and the ONS.

From 29 April 2020, DHSC are publishing as their daily announced figures on deaths from COVID-19 for the UK a new series that uses improved data for England produced by Public Health England (PHE). These figures provide a count of all deaths where a positive test for COVID-19 has been confirmed, wherever that death has taken place. Figures for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have already begun to include deaths outside hospitals, so this change will ensure that the UK-wide series has a shared and common definitional coverage. This updated statement explains what the new data are and how they differ from both the data series previously published by DHSC and the figures produced by the ONS.

Separately, to improve the timely availability of data on deaths in care homes involving COVID-19, the ONS and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) agreed to publish from 28 April 2020 provisional counts of deaths in care homes, based on statutory notifications by care home providers to CQC. A separate explanatory statement about these new data has been published jointly by the ONS and CQC.

Description of the data sources

The main sources of COVID-19 deaths data are:

The daily DHSC COVID-19 deaths data are published for the UK at 2pm every day. From 29 April 2020, these are based (for England) on improved data produced by PHE, which provide a count of all deaths where a positive test for COVID-19 has been confirmed, wherever the death took place. Comparable figures come from Public Health Wales, Health Protection Scotland and Public Health Agency (Northern Ireland). This is the most reliable source for daily reporting for an immediate understanding of the pandemic.

ONS weekly deaths data for England and Wales are released every Tuesday at 9:30am and relate to the week that ended 11 days prior (for example, data for the week ending 20 March 2020 are released on 31 March 2020). These are based on registrations of deaths where confirmed or suspected COVID-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, wherever the death took place. Death certification as involving COVID-19 does not depend on a positive test.

The DHSC daily data provide a vital early indication of COVID-19 deaths that occur after a positive test, and new methodology from PHE means that this count now includes all such deaths, regardless of setting. More information on the new data source is provided in this statement.

The ONS weekly deaths figures include all deaths where the registration mentions COVID-19, including those occurring outside of hospitals (for example, in care homes). Weekly figures by registration date roughly follow the daily figures, with a short time lag. This reflects the time between a death taking place and being officially registered.

The ONS also publishes the number of deaths involving COVID-19 that were registered, the number that actually happened according to our knowledge up to the reporting date (usually 11 days before publication), and the number that actually happened if we include all those we knew about up to the time of publication.

Previously published data

The narrower data series published by DHSC on the GOV.UK website can still be found for reference.

NHS England continues to publish their data series COVID deaths in hospitals in England, covering deaths in hospital of patients with a positive test result. These are organised by date of death.

Technical definitions

The new data series produced by PHE is created by combining reports of deaths from three different sources in England. The three sources are:

  • deaths occurring in hospitals, notified to NHS England by NHS trusts using the COVID-19 Patient Notification System (CPNS) (previously the source of daily COVID-19 deaths in England)
  • deaths notified to PHE Health Protection Teams during outbreak management (primarily in non-hospital settings) in people with a confirmed COVID-19 test and recorded in an electronic reporting system
  • all people with a laboratory confirmed COVID-19 test are reported to PHE through the Second Generation Surveillance System (SGSS) (PDF, 344KB) (a centralised repository of laboratory results from Public Health and NHS laboratories). This list is submitted on a daily basis to the Demographic Batch Service (DBS) to check NHS patient records for reports of individuals who died in the previous 24 hours. These reports include deaths in any setting.

Quality assurance is undertaken by PHE using semi-automated programmes, with manual checking before and after processing. This involves sense checking data in relation to important information (for example, age at death, date of birth, hospital admission, death report). Data from each source are merged and duplicate reports relating to the same individual are removed.

A detailed technical paper has been published PHE.

The sources and methods used in the ONS death registrations data are described in the User guide to mortality statistics.

Comparison of the sources of data

Table 1 presents a summary of the differences between the data sources.