COVID-19: The latest picture as at 25th August 2020

In this week’s blog we explore the latest data on weekly deaths, which are slightly above seasonal norms for the first time since mid-June. Despite COVID-19 deaths continuing to drop this week, non COVID-19 deaths have continued to creep upwards relative to seasonal levels, and in the most recent week are above seasonal levels. Many medical professionals have warned about the risks of such an eventuality, given reductions in the numbers both seeking and receiving medical treatment as a result of the pandemic. Given we have also seen case numbers rising over recent weeks, as England & Wales prepares to reopen schools (while Scotland already has), the risk of a further resurgence in COVID-19 is of concern.

Weekly deaths slightly above seasonal levels

The latest statistics from the ONS include detailed breakdowns of deaths registered in England & Wales up to 14th August. 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. 

The latest data shows that, for the first time since mid June, the total registered deaths in the last reported week was above the average for the time of year.  The number of COVID-19 deaths continues to decline, with the figure for the latest reported week being the lowest for 21 weeks, since the early days of the pandemic in the UK. However this has been offset by a slight rise in non COVID-19 deaths.

Keeping an eye on non COVID-19 deaths

Many in the medical profession have expressed concerns around the risk that we will see a rise in non COVID-19 deaths over the weeks and months ahead. This concern arises both from the reductions in hospital services / capacity as focus switched to preparing for the feared surge in COVID-19 cases,  as well as evidence that people have avoided seeking medical help, through a combination of not wanting to be an ‘inconvenience’ or else fear of catching COVID-19 in a hospital setting. For conditions such as mild strokes, cancer symptoms etc, early diagnosis can make a marked difference to their long-term prognosis, so any delays are likely to result in otherwise preventable deaths.

There was a marked rise in non COVID-19 deaths at the same time as the pandemic started to impact in the UK in April (what we termed ‘missed’ deaths, shown in red in the chart below). Since mid-May non COVID-19 deaths had returned to the early 2020 trend of being below seasonal levels. However, in more recent weeks non COVID-19 deaths have not followed the seasonal norms of a modest decline from week to week, but instead have been creeping up (as seen in the decreasing purple bars) and are now higher than average.   

There is inevitably some volatility in these weekly deaths, so some caution is required in interpreting them over short periods.  However the trend over the past six weeks could potentially be signs of the feared increase in non COVID-19 linked deaths starting to appear, and it is something we will continue to keep a close eye on. 

What is the position for the year to date?

We estimate that the total loss of life in the UK from COVID-19 (including both directly and indirectly related deaths), is currently over 71,000 (i.e. the total of all deaths where COVID-19 is mentioned as a contributory cause on the death certificate and the “hump” of excess deaths in April shown above). 

As a consequence, the cumulative deaths in the UK rose rapidly as a result of the pandemic following a relatively light start to the year. By mid-June cumulative deaths for the year to date were almost 60,000 higher than the corresponding weekly average values over the past 5 years, before stabilising over recent weeks (solid line in chart below). 

Whilst it is reassuring that the level of excess deaths has levelled off recently, the charts reminds us of the sudden and dramatic emergence of COVID-19 and its impact on UK mortality, with excess deaths of the order of 10% of the typical annual total for the UK.  Given the upwards trend in non COVID-19 death figures relative to average levels over the past few weeks, not to mention the risk of a resurgence in COVID-19, there are real concerns that we could be entering a fresh phase of rising excess 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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