COVID-19: The latest picture as at 6th October 2020

In this week’s blog we explore the latest data on weekly deaths, which remain close to seasonal norms. While non COVID-19 deaths in the UK are unchanged in the latest reported week, COVID-19 deaths have continued to tick upwards, reaching the highest level since the middle of July.

Over the last week the extent of local lockdowns across the UK continued to increase, both in the number of areas impacted, and the level of the restrictions on social interactions put in place. Meanwhile the Scottish Government has been considering whether to implement a short term ‘circuit breaker’ of much stronger restrictions (although as we go to press they have stated that they do not plan a further full lockdown or national travel ban). Our recent case-watch blog explored the continued rise in case numbers across the UK (before the revelation that case numbers for England over the past few days had been significantly understated).  

While much of the recent rise in cases was driven by younger ages, who are less likely to need hospitalisation or die, there are signs that older ages are now also seeing increased cases coming through. As we head towards winter, a time when respiratory infections typically thrive, it will be increasingly important to keep a close eye on case numbers, as indicators of the risk of imminent increases in deaths in the weeks ahead.

Weekly deaths are close to seasonal levels

The latest statistics from the ONS include detailed breakdowns of deaths registered in England & Wales up to 18th September. 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 the total registered deaths in the UK in the last reported week were close to the average level for the time of year.

COVID-19 deaths continue to creep upwards

Although COVID-19 deaths remain well below the levels seen at the peak of the pandemic, when over 9,500 deaths were registered in a week, they are at the highest level for 10 weeks, and have been creeping up steadily over the past three weeks. While the rate of growth is much less dramatic than at the start of the pandemic, nonetheless at a time when case numbers are continuing to grow rapidly across the UK, any sign of rising COVID-19 deaths is a cause for concern.

Non COVID-19 deaths close to average levels

Non COVID-19 deaths increased rapidly around the same time that the pandemic began to impact in the UK in April (what we termed ‘missed’ deaths, in red on the chart below), but returned to the early 2020 trend of being below seasonal levels over the summer. However, since early July non COVID-19 deaths had been creeping steadily up (as seen in the decreasing purple bars in the chart), eventually rising to be higher than average in August. There were concerns that this trend may be a sign of the feared rise in deaths as a result of restrictions in, and access to, medical care during lockdown. Therefore, the downwards trend over the past few weeks (noting that timings of the August Bank Holiday impacted some recent weeks) is welcome news.

There is inevitably some volatility in these weekly deaths, as well as the impact of events such as bank holidays, so some caution is required in interpreting them over short periods.  We will continue to keep a close eye on the emerging picture over the weeks ahead. 

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 3 months the cumulative excess mortality has been relatively stable, as weekly deaths have been closer to average levels. With just 13 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. As COVID-19 linked deaths continue to creep upwards, and case numbers surge, concerns remain that we could be entering a fresh phase of increasing COVID-19 deaths in the weeks ahead.

The upwards trend in non COVID-19 death figures, relative to average levels, over much of July and August also highlights the risk of broader health impacts arising from the pandemic.

As the increased level and geographic spread of restrictions being (re)introduced across the UK in recent days demonstrate, we continue to walk a delicate tightrope between maintaining services to protect broader public health and the economy, whilst targeting interventions in order to contain the direct and indirect loss of life from COVID-19.

“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…”
Share this article: