COVID-19: The latest picture as at 20th October 2020

In this week’s blog we explore the latest data on weekly deaths in the UK, which remain close to (if not slightly above) seasonal levels. Deaths which mention COVID-19 on the death certificate continue to trend upwards, contributing an increasing proportion of total weekly deaths.

Since last week’s update on weekly deaths, a new “three-tier” alert system for local restrictions has been implemented in England, with Scotland currently finalising plans for a similar system. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland brought in a four week “circuit breaker” from 16th October, while Wales is introducing a short “firebreak” across the country from Friday evening. These various approaches are all intended to help slow the rise in COVID-19 cases that we have seen in recent weeks, while hoping to avoid the need for another full UK wide lockdown. However, as COVID-19 deaths continue to steadily rise, albeit more slowly than in the initial stages of the pandemic, concerns remain that we could see many more deaths as we head into winter.

Continuing increase in COVID-19 deaths

The latest statistics from the ONS include detailed breakdowns of deaths registered in England & Wales up to 9th October. In particular, they identify deaths where there is any mention of COVID-19 on the death certificate. Combining this information with similar data from the corresponding statistical bodies in Scotland and Northern Ireland, we can examine emerging patterns in the data. 

COVID-19 deaths have been increasing steadily over recent weeks. While concerning, particularly as we approach winter, the fact that deaths are not increasing as rapidly as at the start of the pandemic, despite the rapid increase in cases over recent weeks, suggests that much of the rise in cases is amongst younger people (e.g. university students) who are less likely to die, and that improvements in medical treatments have reduced the mortality rates for those admitted to hospital. However the risk that infected younger people may go on to infect older, more vulnerable, relatives is one of the drivers behind recent restrictions.

As more widespread and stringent restrictions continue to be implemented, we will continue to monitor the data to see whether we see a slowing of the trend in case rates and deaths in the weeks ahead.

Weekly deaths are above average seasonal levels

Total deaths remain slightly above the 5-year average, for the fifth consecutive week. This has been driven by the increase in COVID-19 deaths. If we exclude such deaths, the weekly deaths would actually be slightly below average for the latest week, as can be seen from the chart below.

The bars shaded in red indicate weeks where total deaths were above average seasonal levels, even before including the COVID deaths. This effect was particularly evident over April and May and was explored as ‘missed’ COVID-19 linked deaths in our earlier blog. In more recent weeks the number of deaths has been fairly close to average levels.

Given the statistical ‘noise’ in weekly death figures, caution is required when looking at this data over short periods. It will, however, be important to monitor how these figures evolve as we head into the winter months, where deaths would be expected to increase.

Deaths at home remain higher than average

The ONS has published analysis of the causes of death of those dying at home in England & Wales registered between 28 December 2019 and 11 September 2020. The chart below shows how the number of deaths registered each week at private homes in England & Wales, split by COVID-19 and non COVID-19 deaths, compares to the average for the corresponding week over the previous 5 years.

Having been close to average levels for the first quarter of the year, deaths at home rose rapidly in April as the pandemic hit the UK. While deaths in hospitals and care homes have fallen below average levels more recently, deaths at home have remained significantly above seasonal levels throughout the summer and into autumn. COVID-19 deaths have not been a significant contributor to deaths at home.

The ONS analysis of deaths at home in England & Wales registered from 14 March to 11 September found that, for both men and women, the numbers of deaths for all leading causes of death were higher than the corresponding 5-year averages. Over the same period deaths in hospitals and hospices from the same causes of death were below average levels, again for both men and women. This suggests that there has been some ‘redistribution’ of deaths away from hospital/hospice settings to private homes. This may in part be due a limited availability of medical services, such as palliative care, or simply a reluctance amongst the general population to seek out medical attention during a pandemic. Having seen large numbers of COVID-19 deaths in care homes at the first peak of the pandemic, it may be that deaths in private homes will be the next driver of overall deaths.

“All of the team at Club Vita wish to extend our condolences to anyone who has personally been touched by bereavement in recent months. We know that these deaths leave behind people who are missing loved ones. Our thoughts are with you…”
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