COVID-19: The latest picture as at 3rd February 2021

In this week’s blog we explore the latest weekly deaths data for the UK, covering deaths registered in the third week of 2021. Total deaths registered were slightly higher than the previous week, as a further marked increase in deaths mentioning COVID-19 exceeded the slight fall in deaths which did not mention COVID-19. The resurgence in COVID-19 deaths is such that the latest reported week saw the second highest number of COVID-19 linked deaths in the UK since the start of the pandemic, with such deaths accounting for almost 45% of registered deaths, higher than the previous peak in mid-April 2020.

In more encouraging news, daily case numbers and hospital admissions have both continued to fall steadily over recent days, although both remain at relatively high levels, while there are some signs that deaths may be starting to fall too. As the nationwide vaccination programme continues, and tightened nationwide restrictions remain in place, there will hopefully be more positive news to come in the weeks ahead.

COVID-19 in the UK: Current position

COVID-19 case numbers continue to grab the headlines. While many cases show only relatively mild symptoms, and some are entirely asymptomatic, there will unfortunately be a proportion who will require hospital treatment and potentially intensive care. Sadly, while medical treatments continue to improve, a number of those admitted to hospital will tragically die. The progression from first infection, to developing serious symptoms requiring hospitalisation, to death occurring typically takes a number of weeks.

It is therefore very useful to look at the numbers of COVID-19 cases as an indicator of imminent hospitalisation requirements, and to look at hospitalisation figures themselves as an indicator of future rises in COVID-19 linked deaths.

The chart below compares these three figures for the UK as a whole (averaged over the 7 days to the date shown to smooth out variations, such as weekends and bank holidays). We have focussed on the figures for the past few months, given the very low levels of COVID-19 seen over the summer months.

We can see how COVID-19 cases in the UK (purple line, left hand axis) increased steadily from early September, fell somewhat in late November, following a tightening of restrictions, before increasing rapidly since the start of December, potentially due to the new more transmissible variant and a (slight) loosening of restrictions for the festive period. New, more stringent, nationwide restrictions were brought in after Christmas, and it is encouraging to see that case numbers have continued to fall from the peak at the turn of the year, although they are still at a high level.

There will not always be a direct correlation between cases and hospitalisations (solid green line, right hand axis), for example due to changing rates of infection across different age groups, who are likely to have differing levels of hospitalisation. However, hospitalisations (green line, right hand axis) have broadly followed case numbers (with some anticipated time lag) in the chart.  While numbers also remain high, and there continue to be pressure points in particular parts of the country, at the national level numbers have also started to fall.

COVID-19 deaths (dashed green line, right hand axis) are also following similar patterns, although the rate of increase since early December was less dramatic and closer to that seen over November. Note that, unlike in the rest of this blog, these death figures are based on date of death rather than date of registration, and count deaths within 28 days of a positive COVID-19 test. We see some signs that deaths, on this measure, are also falling somewhat, which is welcome news.

Weekly deaths remain well above average seasonal levels

The latest statistics from the ONS include detailed breakdowns of deaths registered in England & Wales up to 22nd January 2021. Combining this information with similar data from the corresponding statistical bodies in Scotland and Northern Ireland, we can examine emerging patterns in the data.

Total weekly deaths registered over the first three weeks of 2021 have been relatively stable, and have sadly been significantly higher than expected for the time of year. The latest week saw registered deaths that were almost 40% higher than the seasonal average, driven by the continued resurgence in COVID-19 linked deaths.

Deaths directly attributable to COVID-19 have increased further

We focus on deaths where there is any mention of COVID-19 on the death certificate in the chart below. 

The number of registered deaths which mention COVID-19 on the death certificate has continued to increase fairly rapidly, to the extent that deaths mentioning COVID-19 accounted for almost 45% of all deaths registered over the week. While the number of COVID-19 linked deaths is slightly below the previous peak seen in April 2020, the latest reported week saw COVID-19 deaths contribute a higher proportion of the total deaths than for the previous peak.

Deaths excluding those linked to COVID-19 continue to be significantly below average levels (compared to 2015-2019), as can be seen from the chart below.

The bars shaded in red indicate weeks where total deaths were above average seasonal levels. This effect was particularly evident at the same time as the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the UK over April and May and was explored as ‘missed’ COVID-19 linked deaths in our earlier blog.

While the weeks around the turn of the year were impacted by variations in the timing of festive bank holidays, the latest week again saw non COVID-19 deaths that were significantly below expected levels. This continues the trend seen over the last quarter of 2020 of steadily falling non COVID-19 deaths.

As noted above, while cases and hospitalisations continue to fall, they both remain uncomfortably high. We are sadly likely to see further tragic COVID-19 deaths in the weeks and months ahead, and concerns remain that the impact of disruption to healthcare services during the pandemic may have consequences in the short to medium term. Offsetting that, the hope is that the continued rollout of vaccinations will help stem case levels, hospitalisations and ultimately deaths.

We will be keeping a close eye on the emerging statistics in the weeks and months 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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