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HomeCOVID-19The Covid numbers simply don’t add up

The Covid numbers simply don’t add up


ON August 10, something strange happened on the Isle of Wight. According to the government’s coronavirus dashboard, 36 people were in hospital with Covid on the island that day compared with just five the day before – a staggering increase of 620 per cent. This was followed by an equally dramatic drop to only six in hospital on August 11. As there were no admissions on August 9 and just one on August 10, it’s obvious that the 36 is a mistake.

The fact that this number was wrong was reported in the local paper, confirmed by the IoW NHS Trust and followed up with the government by the island’s MP, Bob Seely. However, the error has still not been corrected on the database, and the failure to do that raises the question of how many other numbers are wrong.

Amongst the most suspect data are the much-publicised figures for hospitalisations. These have always been misleading because they include people admitted for other conditions who have tested positive on admission or after they have caught Covid in hospital. However, there is another problem as well: the discrepancy between hospitalisations and the number of Covid-positive patients actually in hospital at any given time.

This is not a new issue. On January 6 when the third lockdown began, 31,946 patients were in hospital with Covid, said to be an increase of 1,260 on the day before – a day when it was claimed that 4,118 had been admitted with Covid. This discrepancy didn’t matter at the time as decisions appeared to be based on the number of people actually in hospital, and it was that number Boris Johnson referred to when he announced the third lockdown.

Since then, the emphasis has switched from the number in hospital to the number of hospitalisations. Both the media and politicians keep referring to the fact there are 900-1,000 admissions per day, which creates the impression that hospitals are filling up rapidly and on the edge of being overwhelmed. That is not the case. The actual number of patients in hospital who have tested positive goes down as well as up and, when increases happen, they are well below the claimed number of hospitalisations.

Assuming these hospitalisation figures are genuine, the most likely explanation for this discrepancy is that large numbers of Covid-positive patients are being discharged every day. But, for some reason, we are not given those discharge figures. Are they being held back because they would suggest things are not as black as some experts would like us to believe?

The other figures that appear to be unreliable are those for the number of tests carried out. The coronavirus dashboard rarely records more than 1.5million tests in a day and frequently records fewer than a million, which isn’t many for a population of 65million, many of whom who are being told to test twice a week. All PCR tests are recorded by the labs, so the under-recording must be coming from lateral flow tests. This is confirmed by the National Audit Office, which reports that only 91million results have been received from 691million tests distributed. The most likely reason for this is that huge numbers of negative tests are not being reported. A random survey of my acquaintances showed that only those who need to prove their Covid status are bothering to report negative results. The others either think they don’t have to do so or don’t want to spend time providing an intrusive amount of information about themselves for no gain.

This might not sound important. After all, a negative test doesn’t put anyone in danger and doesn’t require any action. However, failing to count a large proportion of the tests carried out skews any calculations made with the results to give the impression that the incidence of positive tests is higher than it really is. It also results in a big underestimate of the number of false positives that may be lurking in the statistics.

The numbers on the coronavirus dashboard are being used to justify the possible introduction of Covid passports, the vaccination of children and the renewal of the Coronavirus Act. They may even be used as an excuse for another lockdown. We should be demanding proof that those numbers are accurate and asking to see the missing discharge data.   

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Diana Kimpton
Diana Kimpton
Diana Kimpton is a maths graduate and an author. She specialises in writing about horses and numbers, but not usually at the same time.

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