To say only 17,000 people have died from COVID-19 is highly misleading

An image of a woman wearing surgical scrubs and a mask. She has a stethoscope around her neck and is holding a clipboard.

It’s being claimed that the true number of deaths caused by COVID-19 in England and Wales is ‘only’ around 17,000 people.  The claim is based on ONS data on the number of coronavirus deaths where no other health conditions were noted on the death certificate. However, as James Tucker explains, to suggest that figure represents the real extent of deaths from the virus is both factually incorrect and highly misleading.

Since the start of the pandemic around nine in 10 deaths involving COVID-19 have been due to COVID-19. Therefore, COVID-19 initiated the train of events directly leading to death for more than 140,000 people.

So why are some people saying only 17,000 people have really died from coronavirus? These spurious claims draw on a Freedom Of Information request published by us last year, which asked for mortality figures where COVID-19 was the sole cause of death. However, taking this to mean the ‘true’ number of people dying from COVID-19 misses some crucial context.

Regardless of the cause of death, it is very common for the person dying to have a pre-existing health condition of some sort, but this does not mean that the person was at imminent risk of dying from that condition, or even considered to have a reduced life expectancy.

For those people dying from COVID-19, the most common pre-existing condition was diabetes. Diabetes is a chronic condition, that is serious and may make a person more vulnerable to other health problems, but this does not mean they were at risk of dying from it.

Understanding causes of death

Doctors are required by law to certify the cause of death ‘to the best of their knowledge and belief’. That means they use their medical expertise to decide the cause based on symptoms, physical examination, hospital records, laboratory tests, and all the other information available.

A doctor certifying a death can list all causes in the chain of events that led to the death and pre-existing conditions that may have contributed to the death, and this is used to determine an underlying cause of death. We use the term “due to COVID-19” when referring only to deaths for which COVID-19 was the underlying cause. When taking into account all of the deaths that had COVID-19 mentioned on the death certificate, whether as an underlying cause or as contributing to the death, we use the term “involving COVID-19”.

There is a huge range of pre-existing conditions that can be listed on the death certificate, from heart disease and cancers, to obesity and heart arrhythmias. For the more than 140,000 deaths that were due to COVID-19, it has been determined that COVID-19 was the underlying cause of death, as opposed to one of these pre-existing conditions.

To conclude

We distinguish between deaths that are “due to COVID-19” and those “involving COVID-19” to provide the most comprehensive information on the impact of the disease on mortality. More than 140,000 deaths have been due to COVID-19, meaning that it has been determined as the underlying cause. To exclude individuals with any pre-existing conditions from this figure greatly understates the number of people who died from COVID-19 and who might well still be alive had the pandemic not occurred.

Image of James Tucker, head of health and life events analysis

James Tucker is head of health and life events analysis