Public Health England criticised for excluding reinfections from official Covid figures

·3 min read
A Covid-19 home testing kit - Steve Parsons/PA
A Covid-19 home testing kit - Steve Parsons/PA

Scientists working at Public Health England have defended the Government’s recording of daily Covid-19 figures after it emerged reinfections are not included in the daily numbers.

A reinfection is when a person who has previously tested positive for Covid-19 recovers and then catches the virus and tests positive again.

Weekly figures published by PHE show this is a rarity, and that such instances account for around 1.2 per cent of all daily cases.

Official figures show that there have been around 23,000 total reinfection events since the start of the pandemic, compared to more than 5.6 million confirmed cases.

However, Robert Peston, ITV's political editor, tweeted that the fact PHE did not include reinfections in daily figures was “deeply troubling” and “bonkers”, adding that “there is deep disquiet among officials” on the topic.

Meaghan Kall, an epidemiologist at PHE who has accrued 18,000 followers on Twitter due to her concise and insightful analysis of complex documents, called Mr Peston’s concerns a “storm in a teacup”.

She explained that reinfections are not included in the daily updates because there is as yet no standard definition of what constitutes a reinfection.

PHE “leans toward” two positive tests separated by at least 90 days, she said, but experts are meeting weekly to thrash out the details.

Ms Kall added that the general trends seen in case data (which currently shows a slowing in infections) are not affected by infections, calling them a drop in the ocean.

Pouria Hadjibagheri, the man in charge of the technical development of the UK Covid-19 dashboard, said that once the PHE working group reached a consensus on a reinfection definition, the tech team will consider creating a metric to track reinfections on a daily basis.

Peston calls out number fiddling

Mr Peston also implied that bosses at PHE and the Department of Health were reluctant to correct the reporting issue, leading to accusations of number fiddling and deliberate obfuscation of facts from members of the public.

Ms Kall said PHE is not hiding anything and that the remarks from Peston are “diversionary and unhelpful”. Mr Hadjibagheri added that the reinfection caveat for the daily reporting of cases is clearly visible on the coronavirus dashboard.

The site reads: “People tested positive more than once are only counted once, on the date of their first positive test.”

Public Health England declined to comment officially when approached by The Telegraph.

Daily figures published on Sunday gave yet more encouraging data that the peak of this current wave may have passed. A total of 29,173 people in the UK tested positive, the first time in two weeks that daily infections have been below 30,000.

The number of new infections is also less than half what it was at the July 15 peak, when more than 60,000 people tested positive in 24 hours.

Sunday’s case numbers are also nine per cent down from those reported on the previous Sunday, providing yet more evidence the virus is in retreat.

However, deaths and hospitalisations continue to rise and the lag between infections and admissions means we may not see the full impact of the summer wave until mid-late August.