This is broadly correct. Data shows 23% of deaths involving Covid-19 that week did not have Covid-19 as the underlying cause of death, but it was mentioned as one of a number of other factors on the death certificate.
However, these news reports have since been widely shared on social media out of context, with many people wrongly claiming that a quarter of all deaths categorised as Covid-19 deaths were not caused by the virus.
This is false. Reporting on this topic is based on the most recent Office for National Statistics (ONS) data, which covers the week ending 2 April 2021.
This figure has been shared widely on social media without any caveats, which means many people are interpreting it as applying to the pandemic as a whole. Others have presented it as new information that they say proves previous claims made during the pandemic that the death figures have been inflated. However, this information has been published regularly as part of the weekly death figures for months.
The ONS figures show us that since the start of 2021, 88% of deaths involving Covid-19 were deaths where Covid-19 was listed as the underlying (that is, the primary) cause of death.
Where did the ‘quarter of deaths’ claim come from?
The Telegraph led with the story on its front page on Wednesday, with the headline “Quarter of virus deaths not caused by Covid”. Online this appeared as “Quarter of Covid deaths not caused by virus, new figures show”.
“Nearly a quarter of registered Covid deaths are NOT caused by the virus, new statistics show amid calls to speed up route out of lockdown”, read the Mail Online’s headline, while The Sun said: “NOT COVID: Quarter of virus deaths were not caused by Covid as official figures show deadly bug was not primary cause”.
The Express headlined its article: “MP calls for lockdown lift after data shows quarter of Covid deaths not ‘from’ virus”.
None of the papers mentioned explicitly state in the article text that these figures only relate to one week of data, though this is mentioned in the caption of a graph in The Sun and a graph in the Telegraph. A picture caption in the Mail Online only states that there were 400 deaths involving Covid-19 in the week ending 2 April.
In this week there were 400 deaths registered involving Covid-19 in England and Wales, meaning Covid-19 was mentioned on the person’s death certificate. Of those, 308 (77%) had Covid-19 recorded as the underlying cause of death. That was up slightly from 74% the week before, and 77% the week before that.
In the week ending 29 January the deadliest week of the pandemic’s second wave according to ONS statistics, this figure was 90%.
What’s the difference between dying ‘with’ Covid-19 and dying ‘from’ Covid-19?
Debates on the definition of Covid-19 deaths have persisted throughout the pandemic. The ONS publishes information on the number of deaths registered in England and Wales every week.
Deaths involving Covid-19 are categorised in two main ways by the ONS. The first is deaths where Covid-19 is named specifically as the underlying cause, which in this context means: “the disease or injury which initiated the train of morbid events leading directly to death”. This is decided by a health professional or coroner, and we can say Covid-19 directly caused these deaths.
The second is where Covid-19 is mentioned on the death certificate, but is not pinpointed as the underlying cause of death. As Full Fact has previously reported, death certificates give doctors space to record several different diseases or conditions that contributed to someone’s death, but only one can be recorded as the underlying cause.
In cases where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, but another disease such as cancer was named as the underlying cause of death, it would be misleading to say that person died of Covid-19. These are the deaths that are deemed to be ‘with’ Covid-19, not from it.