COVID-19: The latest picture as at 4th August 2020

In this week’s blog we explore the latest data on weekly deaths, which have remained below normal levels for the sixth straight week. Whilst this is welcome news, concerns remain over the possibility of a resurgence of the current wave / a ‘second wave’. Lockdown restrictions have continued to be eased across the UK. Spikes in case numbers have though triggered the return of more restrictive lockdown measures in large parts of north west England, while a number of planned further relaxations across England have been put on hold, highlighting the fragility of the current position. We are concerned also at some early signs of a rise in non COVID-19 deaths, which had been a concern of many medical professionals given reductions in the numbers seeking treatment in medical facilities as a result of the pandemic. We also continue to see an apparent divergence in the trends across the different nations in the UK, with Scotland continuing to have more success in reducing COVID-19 deaths. Effective monitoring of the daily numbers of new positive cases, along with “track and trace”, will be extremely important in the weeks ahead, especially at local levels, to ensure spikes remain localised. Without this, some more widespread reversal of the easing of restrictions seems likely.

Weekly deaths remain below seasonal levels

The latest statistics from the ONS include detailed breakdowns of deaths registered in England & Wales up to 24th July. 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 sixth week running, the total registered deaths in the last reported week was below the average for the time of year.  The number of COVID-19 deaths also continues to decline, with the figure for the latest reported week being the lowest for 18 weeks, since the early days of the pandemic in the UK. The continuation of both these trends is welcome news.

Early signs of non COVID-19 deaths starting to rise again?

One of the concerns of many in the medical profession is the risk that we will see a rise in non COVID-19 deaths over time. This concern arises both from reductions in hospital services / capacity as well as emerging evidence that people have avoided seeking medical help and so are presenting later with conditions such as mild strokes, cancer symptoms etc…

While we did see 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), in more recent weeks we saw non COVID-19 deaths return to (below) seasonal levels.  While this pattern has continued for a tenth week of lower than average non COVID-19 deaths, the last few weeks have seen a fall in the extent to which weekly deaths are below average.  

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

Comparing COVID-19 experience across the home nations 

The UK has seen different approaches across each of the home nations in terms of their COVID-19 response. While lockdown was applied across the UK simultaneously, subsequent decisions around the pace and approach to unwinding the restrictions have varied. The charts below look at the how COVID-19 deaths, expressed as a percentage of the total weekly deaths, have varied across the constituent countries.

England saw the earliest and highest peak, and has generally seen the largest proportion of weekly deaths attributed to COVID-19 across the four nations. The last few weeks have seen an apparent slowdown in the rate of decline, with the proportion of deaths levelling off.

In contrast, Scotland continues to see a pronounced decline. In the most recent weeks, less than 1% of deaths were COVID related, compared to a peak of 36%.

Differences between the countries will depend on various factors, such as average ages and levels of urbanisation, as well as variations in the rates of unwinding lockdown restrictions. And as COVID-19 deaths fall to low levels, we are likely to see increased volatility from week to week. However, on the face of it, Scotland’s slower easing of restrictions appears to be paying continued dividends in attempting to control the virus.

What is the position for the year to date?

We estimate that the total death toll from COVID-19 in the UK, including both directly and indirectly related deaths, is currently around 71,000. 

After a relatively light start to the year, and a subsequent jump as a result of the pandemic, the cumulative deaths in the UK over the first 29 weeks of the year appears to have stabilised for the moment at around 60,000 higher than the corresponding weekly average values over the past 5 years. Excluding those deaths which specifically mention COVID on the death certificate, we would be looking at an ‘average’ year, with cumulative deaths just slightly above average.

It is reassuring that the level of excess deaths has levelled off, but this chart does serve as a reminder of the sudden and dramatic emergence of COVID-19 and its impact on UK mortality. Over the course of the year we have seen excess deaths of the order of 10% of the typical annual total for the UK. Whether we remain at broadly the 60,000 excess deaths level, drop down a little due to continued lower than average non COVID-19 deaths as seen over the last few weeks, or enter a fresh phase of rising excess deaths (potentially from a resurgence in COVID-19 and/or a rise in non COVID-19 deaths) continues to be hanging in the balance… 


1A distinction is made by epidemiologists between a continuation of the current wave vs a second wave which would usually follow a period of absence of the virus and a secondary period of infections and deaths, possibly from a different strain.


“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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