Do families have to give permission for COVID-19 death statistics?

CLAIM: The Department of Health (England) needs the consent of families to release information of deceased relatives.

CONCLUSION: INACCURATE. While there has been a change in the timing of reporting of official statistics regarding the impact of COVID-19, there is no suggestion that family consent has any role in the registration of deaths or their statistical reporting. In Northern Ireland, the Public Health Agency has stated that all deaths are a matter of public record.

On the Newsnight programme (26 March 2020; from 1:20) the political editor, Nick Watt, made this statement while discussing the numbers of deaths attributed to COVID-19 in the UK:

“It turns out that these figures may not actually be the deaths that have taken place over the last 24 hours because the Department of Health, the NHS, needs to have the consent of the families of people who have died to release their figures. So some of the deaths may have taken place a few days ago, so it is not exactly a like-for-like figure every day.”

England daily death statistics

The Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England present daily updates on the number of COVID-19 cases, as well as deaths which are publicly available.

Earlier in his report, Watt refers to a change in how the daily statistics are released. This was directly addressed in a series of tweets published by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC). They clarified the following regarding the daily release of data regarding COVID-19:

  • The latest figures counted from the previous day (for a period from 5pm-5pm) will be published at 2pm the following day.
  • Yesterday’s figures [referred to by Watt on Newsnight] did not cover a full 24 hour period while we adjust to the new system. These figures comprised the period from 9am 24 March to 5pm on 24 March.
  • Going forwards, figures on deaths will be recorded for the 24 hour period as of 5pm the previous day.

Therefore, in effect, the 24th of March was a ‘crossover day’ between 2pm reporting and later reporting, meaning the figures appear lower than normal. As a result, the next day’s number total appears higher. Therefore, any perceived anomaly is about timing.

Family consent?

Regarding the need for family consent, there is no direct reference to COVID-19 changing the process in which a death is registered. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), mortality statistics are based on information recorded when deaths are certified and registered. Most deaths are certified by a medical practitioner, using the Medical Certificate of Cause of Death (MCCD).

This certificate is taken to a registrar by an informant, which is usually a near relative of the deceased. Also, deaths should be registered within five days of death. Thus there may be fluctuation in the compilation of daily deaths, but this is not due to seeking any consent.

Is this the case in Northern Ireland?

The Public Health Agency (PHA) in Northern Ireland also provides a daily surveillance bulletin.

FactCheckNI contacted the Public Health Agency (PHA) for comment on whether or not the family of individuals who have died as a result of COVID-19 have to give permission for them to be included (or not) in the official statistics. PHA responded:

“Death statistics are a matter of public record. Permission is not required for statistics to be compiled and published on deaths with an associated diagnosis of COVID-19.”

Reporting deaths

While public health authorities do not require permission to compile and publish statistics on death, journalists’ reporting of individual deaths is a matter addressed by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), the independent regulator of a majority of the UK’s newspapers and magazines. IPSO’s Editor’s Code of Practice provides guidance on the reporting on a death. This includes not breaking the news of a death to the immediate family, and not to publish information that might cause any unnecessary upset to friends and family of the person who has died.

Summary

A Newsnight programme stated that the delay in reporting the number of deaths due to COVID-19 was due to a requirement of consent by families of the deceased.

Instead, the Department of Health explains that the delay was due to a change in the timing of compiling and publishing of data.

The Public Health Authority in Northern Ireland confirms that no permission is required to compile and publish this data.

The reporting by journalists of details about individual deaths is a matter addressed by the independent regulator, IPSO.


FactCheckNI is Northern Ireland’s first and only dedicated independent fact-checking service and a verified signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can learn more about about FactCheckNI, our personnel, what our article verdicts mean, and how to submit a claim.