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Author of Guardian article on death tolls asks UK government to stop using it

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A statistician has asked the government to stop using an article he wrote for the Guardian as justification for why Britain’s death toll from coronavirus should not be compared with that of other countries.

Prof David Spiegelhalter said in the piece published on 30 April that comparing the number of deaths from Covid-19 between countries was difficult because of the different methodologies used by governments to measure deaths.

His article points out that even though the UK had begun including coronavirus deaths in non-hospital settings, the total toll was still probably too low as it did not include the many deaths of people who had not been tested. Spiegelhalter notes other countries also use different methodologies, such as Spain where deaths in care homes are not included.


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The day the article was published, England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, praised it during the No 10 daily coronavirus briefing, saying it showed that comparing death rates in different countries was a “fruitless exercise”.

Boris Johnson again referred to Spiegelhalter’s words on Wednesday in a response to the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, during prime minister’s questions, after Britain’s death toll became the highest in Europe and second highest globally. According to latest official figures, at least 30,150 people have died from the virus in the UK.

The prime minister said Starmer “is right to draw attention to the appalling statistics not just in this country and but of course around the world. I would echo what we’ve heard from Prof David Spiegelhalter and others that at this stage, I don’t think that international comparisons and the data is yet there to draw all the conclusions that we want.

“There will be a time to look at what decisions we took and whether we could have taken different decisions.”

However, a few hours later Spiegelhalter, tweeted: “Polite request to PM and others: please stop using my Guardian article to claim we cannot make any international comparisons yet. I refer only to detailed league tables-of course we should now use other countries to try and learn why our numbers are high”.

Spiegelhalter, who has previously been invited to participate in a meeting of the government’s Sage committee, is the Winton professor of public understanding of risk at Cambridge University.

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