One in four patients classed as a Covid hospitalisation is being treated for other reasons, official data reveal, prompting claims that the public has been misled.
For the first time, the NHS national stocktake establishes how many patients categorised as Covid hospitalisations had another primary cause of admission. The data shows that of 5,021 patients this week classed as hospitalised by Covid, 1,166 were admitted for other reasons.
On Thursday night, Tory MPs accused the Government of making "flawed decisions based on misleading data", with leading scientists questioning why the true picture was only now beginning to emerge.
Since last March, the NHS has published daily statistics on the number of Covid hospitalisations and the total number of patients in hospital with the virus.
The data has regularly been referred to by ministers and at Downing Street briefings, with "Protect the NHS" a key government message in the first lockdown and hospital pressures frequently cited as a reason to retain restrictions.
Every person admitted to hospital is routinely tested for Covid, and the virus hospitalisation statistics include every person found to be positive during their stay or in the 14 days before admission.
As a result, those in hospital for different reasons, such as a broken leg, who might otherwise never have known they had picked up the virus, are counted in the hospitalisation statistics along with those suffering severe illness due to Covid.
But in the run-up to "Freedom Day" earlier this month, hospitals were instructed to provide further data distinguishing between admissions primarily caused by Covid and those which were not.
Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, told the Commons: "I have asked for this advice because it is important that we try to better analyse the primary diagnosis of anyone coming into hospital."
For the new dataset, hospitals were instructed to provide "a breakdown of the current stock of Covid patients into those in hospital with acute Covid-19 symptoms (and for whom Covid-19 is the primary reason for being in hospital), and those who are primarily in hospital for a reason other than Covid-19".
Prof Keith Willett, NHS England’s Covid incident director, told them: "In lay terms this could be considered as a binary split between those in hospital ‘for Covid-19’ and those in hospital ‘with Covid-19’."
The breakdown, issued by NHS England on Thursday night, prompted suggestions that previous decisions to restrict freedoms in order to fight the virus have been based on inflated hospitalisation statistics.
The disclosures will also put officials under pressure to revise previous statistics on Covid hospitalisations and in future to use "primary" diagnosis with the virus as the key daily statistic.
Last summer, Public Health England (PHE) was forced to make changes to the way it reported death figures after its methods were found to inflate total numbers by counting as a virus fatality anyone who tested positive for Covid and later died.
The new data show that, as of July 27, 5,021 hospital beds were occupied by patients with Covid. Of those, 3,855 – 76.7 per cent of the total – were classed as "primarily Covid" cases.
The data only started to be collected on June 18, when 1,154 Covid hospitalisations were recorded – but just 882 have now been given a primary diagnosis of Covid. The split has remained constant since, with around one one in four Covid cases admitted primarily for other reasons.
Health officials stressed that some cases classed as "primarily non-Covid" could include those where the virus was a significant factor, such as a patient whose primary diagnosis was a stroke but where Covid could have increased the risk of that.
They said the stocktake had been ordered to help analyse the impact of the vaccine programme in reducing Covid sickness.
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The figures show that in some areas, almost one in three Covid hospitalisations was actually admitted for other reasons.
Statistics for the South East show that, of 444 hospital Covid cases on July 27, 304 – 68 per cent – were classed as primarily Covid. There was a similar trend in the Midlands, with 641 of 927 Covid hospitalisations classed as primarily Covid.
Prof Carl Heneghan, the director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at the University of Oxford, said: "This data is incredibly important, and this is information we should have had a very long time ago. We have been crying out for it for nearly 18 months.
"The Government might have made very different decisions about restrictions if it had access to data which actually measured the situation accurately."
Prof Heneghan said the trends suggested tens of thousands of patients may have been inaccurately counted as Covid hospitalisations, adding: "This data shows that, for the last month, around one in four Covid hospital cases were admitted primarily for another reason.
"At the peak of the pandemic in January, we were talking about close to 40,000 patients in hospital – this new data suggests that back then around 10,000 of them were primarily there for other reasons."
Covid-19 patients in UK hospitals
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, a former Tory leader, told The Telegraph: "What we are beginning to discover is that the nature of the data collection has been really poor. This in turn means that ministers who have to make very big decisions are too often sitting on misleading data, which often leads to flawed decision-making.
"It really does not speak well that they have not been forthcoming in what the real figures are. These figures will be having a direct impact on some of the decisions that have been made and are being made."
Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 committee of Tory backbench MPs, said it was "frustrating and ridiculous that this was not available months and months ago".
He added: "Accurate and timely data is vital for good policy-making. It is essential we know why people are being admitted to hospital, how long they are remaining in hospital and how effective the new medical treatments and interventions are in reducing the dangers of Covid, alongside the success of the vaccination programme."
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: "The Health and Social Care Secretary asked for this data to help us better understand the impact of the vaccine programme on stopping people infected with Covid requiring hospital treatment.
"The total number of patients with Covid – whether that is primarily what they are being treated for or not – remains a crucial indicator of pressure on the NHS since all those patients require careful infection control, including quarantining and PPE [personal protective equipment]."
Health officials said all patients with Covid required treatment in areas segregated from patients without the virus, while the presence of Covid could increase risks from other illnesses.
Earlier this week, The Telegraph revealed that more than half of patients classed as Covid hospitalisations only tested positive after admission, with the figures suggesting that large numbers of patients were being categorised as Covid admission when it was not the primary cause.
The leaked numbers prompted calls for health officials to urgently publish data which distinguished between such cases – which has now been released by NHS England.
Covid positive patients in hospital, England
Greg Clark, the chairman of Commons science and technology select committee, said: "Very important decisions with big consequences for people’s lives and livelihoods have been made without the most relevant data being available, or at least published.
"For some time now, especially looking back to the winter lockdowns, the capacity of the NHS has been probably the most important criterion."
Steve Baker, deputy chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs, said he was "aghast" that it had taken so long for the figures to be published.
Mr Baker said that while Covid admissions had unquestionably put immense pressure on hospitals, the data should have been material to ministerial decision-making.
Separate data from PHE suggest Covid vaccines have prevented an estimated 22 million infections, 60,000 deaths and more than 52,600 hospital admissions.
But on Thursday night, Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, warned that there could be "bumpy periods" ahead.
"This is not all over bar the shouting," he told the BBC. "I hope the worst is behind us, but I think it’s quite possible that we’re going to have one or two bumpy periods in the autumn and the winter, not only through Covid but also through flu and other respiratory viruses as well."