UK enters wave of excess deaths not fully explained by Covid

The UK has entered a third phase of excess deaths during the pandemic with more people dying than expected and the figure not readily explained by coronavirus.

In the week ending November 12, 2,047 more deaths were registered than during the same period between 2015 to 2019, but Covid-19 was mentioned on death certificates for only 1,197 people.

The new phase of excess deaths raises the possibility that since the summer more people have been losing their lives as a result of strains on the NHS or lack of early diagnosis of serious illness, although the interpretation of the figures is contested.

Data from the Office for National Statistics, National Records Scotland and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency has shown three distinct phases of the pandemic.

In the first wave of infections, Covid-19 was often not diagnosed as a cause of death because tests were unavailable and the disease was new, resulting in a large excess of non-Covid deaths as well as deaths attributed to the virus.

By last winter, the start of the second phase, testing problems had been resolved and more deaths were attributed to coronavirus than the number of excess deaths, suggesting the pandemic was killing people who would have died anyway.

Once the wave subsided, the cumulative total of excess deaths fell with consistently fewer than expected deaths registered per week between March and July.

Column chart of Deaths in UK above the 2015-2019 average  showing UK excess deaths since the start of the pandemic was declining in the summer but is now rising again

But since the summer, the number excess deaths has been climbing steadily, triggering a third phase. The figures not only show Covid deaths but also non-Covid deaths, which since early July have been higher than the weekly average for the five years leading up to the pandemic.

Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at Norwich Medical School, said he had initially suspected the excess deaths in recent months might have been caused by a return of respiratory viruses, such as flu, but data suggest that cardiovascular disease and strokes were the most prominent conditions contributing to the unexpectedly high mortality levels.

Although excess deaths were a “blunt measure”, he believed another key factor was the rise in deaths at home, which are about 30 per cent higher than before the pandemic.

“I’m assuming either that is because people who should be going into hospital are deciding against it because they’re worried about Covid or they’re trying to get into hospital and then waiting too long for ambulances and then succumbing,” he said.

Stuart McDonald, fellow at the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, a professional body, said official statistics were likely to overstate the level of excess deaths as 2015-2019 figures did not take account of an ageing population.

“The proportion of older people is growing so you would expect the number of deaths to rise each year,” he said.

Using the institute’s baseline, there have been few excess deaths not attributable to Covid-19 in the third phase. But the new Office for Health Improvement & Disparities, which took over duties from Public Health England in October, and also uses a sophisticated baseline, showed excess deaths are not sufficiently explained by Covid.

Sarah Scobie, deputy director of research at the Nuffield Trust, a think-tank, said there was no “hard evidence” that people had been seeking, or obtaining, medical help later than they otherwise would have done during the crisis.

But, she added, Covid had prevented year-on-year improvements in excess death rates.

The ONS, which compiles mortality figures for England and Wales, was unable to comment.

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