Jenny Edkins By: Jenny Edkins
Professor of Politics
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15 Apr 2020 : Disappeared deaths

Every day in the Downing Street press conference, which I can’t seem to stop watching, we get told how many people have ‘sadly’ died. When the UK passed the milestone of 10,000 deaths, it did change from ‘sadly’ to ‘tragically’. ‘Horrifically’ might come nearer the mark.

And each day, whoever is presenting reminds themselves, under the guise of reminding us, that behind each of those numbers is a real person, with a family and friends. They don’t mention that these are families and friends who cannot grieve in the usual way: no vigil at the bedside, no last words, no viewing the body, no proper funeral, no visitors with condolences. A twitter thread, some facebook posts, perhaps, but the deceased are effectively disappeared. Into mass graves too sometimes, it seems.

It became clear yesterday that their deaths are being disappeared too. Figures of deaths in care homes and in the community at large were reported—though not up-to-date, only to 3 April—by the UK Office of National Statistics. These weren’t added to the curves, which still, as Tom Newton-Dunn pointed out at the presser, compare the UK’s figures (people who died in hospital after testing positive for the virus) with those of France, which include community and care home deaths. Comparing ONS figures for deaths over the last weeks with the average over the same period in 2015-2019 revealed excess deaths well into the thousands.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. A report from a whistleblower involved in registering deaths shared by Ciaran Jenkins at Channel 4 News gave a chilling account of doctors not recording Covid-19 on death certificates even when they figured that it was the probable cause, opting instead for ‘lower respiratory tract infection’ or ‘pneumonia’—and thus ensuring these deaths would not even be included in the ONS figures. Reportedly, when the official was recording a death that was down as Alzheimer’s and she queried this with the doctor, she got the response ‘Yes, I just put that because we didn’t go out to see him. It was probably Covid but we put Alzheimer’s because he’s over 80.’

It was clear something like this was on the cards when the emergency legislation was passed in such a rush back at the end of March, with clauses that had the aim, according to the Department of Health and Social Care, of ‘managing the deceased in a dignified way’.  What these clauses did in fact was relax the requirement for the death certificate to be completed by a doctor who had attended the patient, remove the need for referral to the coroner where there was no attending doctor, and allow cremation without the usual double certification.

There’s a research project here for someone when this is over: to trace the family of everyone who died during the pandemic and investigate the circumstances surrounding the death.


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