The open letter has been co-signed by Sense About Science, the RSS, Samaritans, SANE, Transform Drug Policy Foundation, Scottish Cot Death Trust, Howard League for Penal Reform and INQUEST.
Currently, the registration of deaths in England and Wales are not added to the national register until the cause of death is established. As inquests can take up to two and a half years to come to a decision it means that official statistics are out of date and around 10,000 deaths a year in England and Wales are not registered for at least six months.
This has a significant impact on research which involves studying cohorts of people, and can delay development of treatments and interventions that rely on this research. It can also impact monitoring and planning during epidemics.
A further complication is caused by Scotland recording deaths differently which complicates UK’s statistics in this area. Scotland, along with the majority of European nations, have uncoupled the fact of death from the cause, meaning that all deaths are recorded within eight days.
The RSS highlighted the issue in 2009 to the government at the time of the H1N1 ‘swine flu’ pandemic, and the chief medical officer recommended action in 2010. The RSS continued its campaign and in 2012, Council adopted its first statement. The Society has also written to key stakeholders (including the National Statistician) on the issue and released a further statement in February this year.
Sheila Bird, former vice president of the RSS and programme leader at MRC Biostatistics Unit in Cambridge, points out that a whole range of studies in the public interest rely on knowing who has died and when. ‘We have waited five years since the H1N1 pandemic of 2009 for the registration system to be sorted,' she said. ‘We have waited long enough. There is an apparent dearth of legislation in the forthcoming parliamentary year. The Royal Statistical Society commends to both Houses of Parliament and to all parties the urgency of our need to count the dead properly.’