Today
Sat 17 April 2021

David Oliver scrutinises a new campaign that ostensibly seeks to investigate whether COVID-19 deaths have been misattributed

After a long career as an NHS acute hospital doctor, I have spent most of the past 12 months looking after hundreds of sick or dying COVID-19 patients, speaking to frightened or grieving relatives and watching many clinical colleagues put their own health at considerable risk in the course of their work.

I take a dim view of COVID-19 grief grifters, capitalising on the pandemic for attention or money or using professional qualifications and superficial credibility to undermine public health protection efforts.

On 24 March, Dr Clare Craig, a pathologist not working in the NHS tweeted a short video, speaking to camera on behalf of the ‘COVID-19 Assembly’ account, announcing a “COVID Death Audit which will investigate every official UK COVID death”. She encouraged NHS staff, members of the public and bereaved families to submit forms with details of deaths for further scrutiny. The campaign, she said, would investigate whether COVID-19 deaths have been misattributed.

On the very same day, at the Downing Street press briefing marking one year since pandemic lockdown measures commenced, England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty cited Office for National Statistics (ONS) data showing that 147,179 people in England and Wales had died with COVID-19 on their registered death certificate. 

The timing of Craig’s post was at best unfortunate. 


Predictable Tactics

Craig has been associated for many months with the lockdown sceptic, ‘Keep Britain Free’ movement. She has quite a track-record of playing down the severity of the disease and the pandemic, questioning the chances of a second wave – which then hit our hospitals with a vengeance – opposing Government health protection policies and claiming that we are over-counting cases due to false-positive PCR tests, as well as over-counting deaths. 

Craig has deleted most of her tweets from last year, albeit now cached and curated for future reference by close observers such as Neil O’Brien MP. She also now makes it clear that her views are not those of the Royal College of Pathologists. In her video, she generously admits that COVID-19 is indeed a serious condition. 

Don’t be fooled, though. A quick scroll through her purged tweets, shares, likes and alliances shows how firmly embedded she remains in lockdown scepticism.

As for the provenance of the grandiosely self-styled COVID-19 Assembly – which claims that it seeks to “end all COVID-19 restrictions through information” – the team includes former scientific researcher Michael Yeadon, Harvard epidemiologist Martin Kulldorff and commentator Toby Young.

Kulldorff, though well-qualified in his field, was one of the signatories of the Great Barrington Declaration which has been roundly criticised by many peers for advocating ‘focussed protection’ and ‘herd immunity’ – the theory that vulnerable groups can be shielded, while the disease is allowed to pass through the rest of the population.

For his part, Young has no relevant scientific or medical background or academic expertise in any relevant field. He is simply and brazenly a professional controversialist. 

Apart from a desire for attention and clicks, it seems clear that the real aim of Craig’s so-called ‘audit’ is to convince people that many of the deaths attributed to COVID-19 were caused by other factors. This will be used claim that the certificates sitting in the drawers of the bereaved are false or unreliable – and by extension that medical and public health professionals, in league with civil servants and politicians, have conspired to exaggerate and inflate the death statistics in order to justify lockdown measures.

Indeed, the Assembly’s website makes clear that its main aim is to scrutinise, review and check for accuracy, information used to justify measures implemented during the pandemic.


A Superior Exercise?

So how will Craig’s audit work in practice? The politically independent ONS employs armies of respected expert professional analysts and statisticians with rapid access to national death certification data.

Equally impressive senior analysts from the King’s Fund and Nuffield Trust Health Policy think-tanks have produced detailed, well-referenced explainers on the calculation of COVID-19 mortality statistics. David Spiegelhalter, Cambridge University’s Professor for Public Understanding of Risk, has reviewed and commented extensively on the death data – as has the Faculty of Public Health.  

Hence, it is a stretch to rubbish all these sources while asking us to believe in the superior skill and objectivity of a non-working pathologist not licensed to practice medicine, embedded in an activist group of dubious provenance.  

Indeed, Craig claims on the COVID-19 Assembly site that “deaths within 28 days of a positive test” count as an “official COVID death” – while failing to acknowledge that this definition in fact underestimates the total number of COVID-19 deaths, because people who die from COVID-19 complications often do so well beyond those 28 days. 

What’s more, Craig cannot possibly access the medical records for all the people who died from COVID-19 over the past 12 months, or even a decent sized sample of them. She can only look at the same summary data the aforementioned agencies and institutions have inspected. As such, she may rely on anecdotes from care staff or families, who may in turn have personal agendas. There will be no way of corroborating their accounts or verifying their credentials.

The COVID-19 Assembly website contains links to a form for people to complete for Craig’s attention. It does not mention that the Coroner’s Office already provides a free service to bereaved people wanting to check or understand the details of their loved one’s death certificate. 

It does, however, contain a fundraising target for the site. At the very least, making money from the concerns of bereaved people who have lost loved ones during a pandemic could be considered both shameless and shameful.

David is an experienced NHS Consultant Physician who was worked on Covid wards for the past year. He is  a weekly columnist for the BMJ and has played a variety of senior leadership, academic and policy roles in medicine

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