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The number of excess deaths in the UK has gone above 100,000, cementing the country’s position as one of the developed nations worst hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
An additional 104,520 people have died since March 2020 across the UK. Since the onset of the pandemic there have been six deaths for every five people who would be expected to die in an average year.
Excess deaths are fatalities above the five-year average and are seen as the gold standard in interpreting how many people have died as a result of the pandemic.
The record-high UK Covid death toll since the beginning of the year has driven overall mortality levels to a fresh peak. In the most recent week, coronavirus accounted for 44% of all fatalities across the UK, the highest proportion of deaths due to the virus so far according to data analysis by the Guardian.
Excess deaths are running at 20% above the norm since the onset of the pandemic, peaking at 109% across the UK in one week in April, more than double the usual number of deaths for that time of year.
The nature of excess deaths in the UK has changed throughout the pandemic. Excess mortality was most pronounced in the first wave in early 2020, with 48% more deaths than usual in the three months to mid-June.
This slowed in the summer months with excess deaths closely tracking coronavirus deaths for a period. However, a winter surge in Covid deaths has contributed to excess deaths rising to 24% above a typical year in the past three months.
Sarah Caul, head of mortality at the ONS, said better diagnosis in the second wave contributed to the change in trends. “A significant part of the first wave non-Covid excess is likely to have been Covid cases that were not readily diagnosed at the time because of less testing and less clinical experience with a new disease. This may have particularly affected elderly people with dementia and general frailty.”
She also pointed to the change that Covid has had on the usual seasonal patterns: in ordinary times many excess deaths in winter are due to flu, but in winter 2020-21 Covid has “somewhat ‘replaced’ influenza as a factor”.
“It is likely that lockdown precautions have reduced the spread of non-Covid infectious diseases, and because it is more infectious and more fatal than influenza, vulnerable individuals will be likely to die from Covid this winter when they might have died from influenza or another infectious disease in a different year.”
However, new data released by the Office for National Statistics show that England and Wales have experienced high levels of excess mortality since the beginning of the year, with deaths 41.3% above average in the week ending 22 January.
David Leon, professor of epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the lockdown and particularly its effect on the groups most vulnerable to Covid has played a role.
“It has been suggested that social distancing, hand-washing and the highest level of flu vaccine uptake ever seen in the UK in 2020 may explain the low observed levels of flu. This together with much more restricted mobility of older people due to shielding may have depressed the ‘usual’ causes of winter excess mortality.”
The figure includes all deaths registered with the Office for National Statistics, National Records of Scotland and Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency up to 22 January in England and Wales and Northern Ireland and 18 January in Scotland.
The baseline for comparison to the five-year average is the equivalent week in 2015 to 2019 inclusive in keeping with the methodology used by the Office for National Statistics.
Source: The Guardian
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