COVID-19: The latest picture as at 27th October 2020

In this week’s blog we explore the latest data on weekly deaths in the UK. Deaths which mention COVID-19 on the death certificate continue to trend upwards, contributing to an increasing proportion of total weekly deaths. Meanwhile non COVID-19 deaths remain fairly close to the seasonal average.

Since last week’s update on weekly deaths, a number of areas in England have been escalated to the ‘Very high’ risk level under the “three-tier” alert system for local restrictions. Scotland is currently finalising plans for a similar five-tiered system, due to come into effect from 2nd November. Meanwhile, Wales has now implemented its “firebreak” across the country, and Northern Ireland’s “circuit breaker” continues. These various approaches have been introduced in the face of the continued rises in COVID-19 cases seen in recent weeks, in an effort to avoid the need to return to the type of broad UK wide lockdown seen in the spring. There will inevitably be a lag between tightened restrictions being brought in and any hoped-for reductions in case numbers and so deaths. 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 deaths directly attributable to COVID-19

The latest statistics from the ONS include detailed breakdowns of deaths registered in England and Wales up to 16th 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, and some 6% of deaths in the most recent registered week mentioned COVID-19 on the death certificate. Whilst we are some way off April’s peak, when almost 40% of deaths mentioned COVID-19, the direction of travel is nonetheless concerning, particularly in light of continued increases in cases across much of the country, and the imminent arrival of winter bringing further pressures on NHS services.

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 remain slightly above average seasonal levels

Total deaths remain slightly above the 5-year average, for the sixth consecutive week. This has mainly been driven by the steady increase in COVID-19 deaths over that period. If we exclude such deaths, the weekly deaths would actually be very 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 in any given year.

What is the position for the year to date?

After a relatively light start to the year, cumulative deaths in the UK rose rapidly over April and May, and 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 year (the solid line in chart below). For the past few months the cumulative excess mortality has been relatively stable, as weekly deaths have been closer to average levels. With just 10 weeks of the year remaining, the ‘excess’ deaths for the year to date are of the order of 10% of the typical annual total for the UK. 

The chart above reminds us of the sudden and dramatic emergence of COVID-19 and its impact on UK mortality.  If we exclude the COVID-19 attributed deaths, the cumulative position would be close to average levels. As deaths, both directly and indirectly linked to COVID-19, continue to trend upwards, and case numbers surge, concerns remain that we could be entering a fresh phase of increasing COVID-19 deaths in the weeks ahead. 

“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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