Coronavirus: Doctor apologises for saying COVID-19 patients would have died anyway

A British oncologist has apologised for claiming the true death toll from COVID-19 in the UK might be half what officials say it is because doctors were attributing deaths to COVID-19 without proof.

Prof Karol Sikora also said many of the UK's 41,000 deaths to date attributed to the virus were people who would have died anyway, sparking outrage.

Prof Sikora told The Telegraph's podcast Planet Normal overall mortality in June appeared to be lower than normal.

"The reason for that is simply that many of the people, sadly, that would have died in June, July and August, actually died during the peak of the pandemic."

He then claimed if there was "any hint" of COVID-19 being involved in a death, doctors with the UK's National Health Service (NHS) would list it as the cause of death - unlike in some other countries, which typically need medical proof, such as an antibody test. 

Prof Sikora, who has a history of criticising the UK's NHS and briefly led the World Health Organization's (WHO) cancer programme, suggested the real COVID-19 death toll could be as low as 20,000, and people might be dying of other causes - such as cancer - because they can't get treatment, with hospital beds reserved for coronavirus patients.

"It could end up that more people have died because of lack of medical care directly caused by the unavailability of it, because its facilities have been taken over for COVID."

His comments outraged UK television personality and journalist Piers Morgan, who called them "absolutely shameful".

"Why would you cause such distress to so many families & to those you've now accused of lying on death certificates?" Morgan tweeted.

Prof Sikora immediately apologised.

"I was wrong to say what I did. I phrased it very insensitively and I should not have said it. I understand the distress these families are going through and it's tragic. Again, I got this wrong. No excuses."

Hundreds are still dying every day in the UK, according to official figures. The seven-day rolling average on Wednesday was 200. 

But Prof Sikora also took issue with these figures, suggesting the real figure was far lower.

"The UK's archaic system for reporting deaths means there's a significant delay between a patient's last breaths and the moment their demise is registered," he told Planet Normal. "Sometimes, it takes six weeks."

COVID-19's true death toll might never be known with any certainty. 

When it comes to pandemics, researchers often rely on excess mortality figures to figure out a disease's true impact - looking at how many people would normally die over a certain time period, and compare that with what actually happened. 

That's how it was eventually determined 2009's swine flu pandemic killed approximately 284,000 people, and possibly up to 575,000 - despite only 18,449 of those being formally reported to the WHO at the time. With up to a quarter of the world's population infected, it was eventually determined swine flu was no more dangerous than influenza - killing around the same number of people that year.

COVID-19 is far deadlier, it would seem, with more than 422,000 deaths on record in less than six months - and it's arguably still early days for the pandemic, with more new infections confirmed in the past week than ever before.