The team uncovered the figures after comparing the number of registered deaths where coronavirus was not the main cause to the ONS data.
During the pandemic, 263,826 deaths were recorded altogether in England and Wales and 218,143 were from causes other than coronavirus. That suggests that some 45,683 people died “from” coronavirus rather than the 49,560 figure published by the ONS.
Experts at Oxford are concerned that the problem with over-counting will get worse as more people in the population contract coronavirus. They are worried it means thousands more people died at the peak because of the pandemic response rather than because of the virus and have been wrongly included in the Covid-19 statistics.
“In the lockdown, there may have been even more deaths that were not caused by Covid, but were caused by the actions of lockdown – and that is important to know,” added Dr Oke.
The team is the same one that discovered that Public Health England (PHE) had been wrongly counting people as having died from the virus if they had ever tested positive.
That led to Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, ordering an urgent review of the data, and in August the UK death toll was revised downwards by 5,377 to 41,329 and now only include deaths that occur within 28 days of a positive test.
However, Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said it was very difficult for doctors to be able to tell how much of an impact Covid-19 had on an underlying condition.
“It’s a difficult judgment call to make,” he said. “Say, for example, you’ve got a patient who has got leukaemia, they get Covid, and a couple of weeks later they die.
“There is evidence they had got some degree of pneumonia, so what do you put as the primary cause of death? How much is because of Covid is not easy to say. The primary cause is leukemia, but they might not have died if they had not got Covid.”