Health

Excess winter deaths in England and Wales increased by a fifth last year before Covid hit

Winter deaths rose by a fifth to 28,300 more than average between last December and this February, according to official data.

The Office for National Statistics today published a report showing that, before Covid-19 hit England and Wales, the number of ‘excess winter deaths’ had surged on 2018/19.

These figures show how many more people die in the winter than in spring and autumn – the season leads to more deaths because of flu and other chest infections circulating widely and pressure on hospitals blocking people’s access to care.

Although excess winter deaths this year rose from last year, they were lower than in the winters of 2014/15, 2016/17 and 2017/18, when they surged as high as 49,000.

When coronavirus is taken into account the winter death toll becomes unreliable because it is compared to a very high baseline in April, when thousands of people were dying each day with Covid-19.

Winter excess is usually calculated by comparing the number of deaths during the season to the typically lower counts in autumn and spring – but this year’s spring number was considerably higher than it should have been because of coronavirus.

In a separate report the ONS says it had recorded the deaths of 62,162 people with Covid-19 so far this year.

This total puts the coronavirus death toll so far more than twice as high as last winter’s, 26 per cent higher than the worst winter of the last decade (49,410 in 2017-18) but lower than the worst winter on record – there were 89,600 excess deaths in the winter of 1962-63.

The number of above-average winter deaths in England and Wales rose by around a fifth last year but remains below the past decade’s peaks. The effects of coronavirus are not included

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) report said there were an estimated 28,300 excess winter deaths in England and Wales in the winter of 2019-20, which ran from December last year to this February.

This was 19.6 per cent higher than the 23,670 in the winter of 2018-19 but lower than the 49,410 recorded in the winter of 2017-18.

Excess winter deaths compares the number of deaths during the months of December to March with the average number of deaths in the preceding August to November and the following April to July.

For the winter of 2019-20, the ONS said it had excluded deaths where coronavirus was mentioned on the death certificate from the main figures in order to improve the ‘comparability of this winter’s measure with previous years’.

When Covid-19 deaths were included there were an estimated 8,700 excess winter deaths during the 2019-20 season – the lowest number recorded since the data time series began in 1950-51.

However, the ONS said: ‘The low estimate is explained by the comparison with the large number of Covid-19 deaths that occurred mainly in the non-winter months April to July, rather than an exceptionally low number of winter deaths.’

The new data, published on Friday, also showed that respiratory diseases continued to be the leading cause of excess winter deaths that occurred in 2019-20.

Respiratory diseases accounted for 39.6 per cent of all excess winter deaths in England and 40.0 per cent in Wales, the ONS added.

In England there were an estimated 26,500 excess winter deaths in 2019-20, with 50.2 per cent among males and 49.4 per cent among females, the ONS said.

In Wales there were an estimated 2,000 excess winter deaths in 2019-20, which was split evenly between males and females.

Wales had the highest percentage of extra deaths in the winter of 2019-20 at 19.2 per cent, followed by the North West at 19.0 per cent and London at 18.6 per cent.

The excess deaths mortality index for these areas was ‘statistically significantly’ higher than the England average of 16.8 per cent, the ONS said.

In comparison, Yorkshire and the Humber at 15.7 per cent, the East of England at 15.6 per cent, the South West at 15.2 per cent and the North East at 13.8 per cent were statistically significantly lower, it added.

The excess winter mortality index is calculated so that comparisons can be made between sexes, age groups and regions, and shows the percentage of extra deaths that occurred between December and March.

COVID DEATHS STILL RISING AS ENGLAND HEADS INTO WINTER

Covid deaths in England continued to rise in mid-November to 2,274 in the second week of the month, meaning deaths from all causes were 19 per cent higher than usual for the time of year.

Office for National Statistics data published today shows there were 1,833 excess deaths in the week that ended November 13, with a total of 11,495 people dying. 

Although higher than average, the figure is only just over half the 21,157 deaths from all causes in England’s worst week in April during the peak of the first wave — when Covid claimed around 8,000 lives. 

The number of people dying with the viral infection is now on par with those dying with flu or pneumonia for the first time since June.

The coronavirus deaths recorded in the week that ended November 13 were a rise of 503 on the 1,771 recorded in the first week of the month. The data won’t take into account any effects of lockdown because it can take infected patients several weeks to fall severely ill. 

Figures show that numbers of people dying of any cause is higher than average in all regions, with the northern parts of England still worst hit by Covid. In the North West, deaths are 38 per cent higher than usual, while in the South East they are only marginally higher at two per cent.

Hospitals, care homes and private homes are all seeing more fatalities than they would expect to at this time of year, and one in five deaths are now linked to Covid-19, compared to one in six a week earlier. But the ONS data is backdated and known to be too old to reflect the current situation in the country.

Department of Health death counts, which take in daily totals from hospitals and care homes for the whole UK, suggest that the number of people being killed by Covid-19 has started to level off after a surge in October.

In the last three weeks of October, from the 10th to the 31st, the average number of people dying with coronavirus each day soared four-fold from 63 to 259, while in the first three weeks of November it rose far more slowly – by 57 per cent from 260 to 409.There are signs of a flattening in the trend, although experts have warned deaths will likely stay in the hundreds per day for weeks to come as the effects of huge numbers of infections in October and early November continue to trickle through.


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