Top Charts 23 - Excess deaths in England & Wales: 2020 compared to history

In this regular column, Club Vita’s longevity experts will help you visualise the often abstract world of longevity risk by introducing some of their favourite charts.

In this edition of Top Charts, Chuyi Yang looks at excess deaths in England & Wales and compares the extreme experience in 2020 to previous years back to 1900.


How do the excess deaths that occurred in England & Wales compare to historical figures?


We have not seen levels of excess deaths as high as in 2020 for over 100 years, since the Spanish Flu in 1918.

Excess deaths is a term used to quantify how many more people died in a given period than the number of people that were expected to die. This number will vary a little depending on what method has been used to calculate the number of people expected to die. In general, the more realistic expectations will be based on the number of people alive, the age profile of those people and mortality rates for people in that population at different ages. In turn the mortality rates will be estimated by the actual mortality experience in recent years.

In the charts below, we have compared the actual number of deaths in England & Wales to the expected number of deaths calculated using a similar method as that in the Continuous Mortality Investigation’s projection model1 for each year back to 1900. Note that the historical expected number of deaths has been calculated allowing for observed mortality in both prior and subsequent years (i.e. with hindsight of what happened next) whereas our figure for 2020 is inevitably only based only on the trend up to 2019.

Source: Club Vita calculations based on data from the Human Mortality Database, ONS and Public Health England 

Key takeaways

  • The number of deaths in 2020 was around 13.5% higher than expected.
  • This is higher than the deadliest influenza epidemics in the last 100 years:
    • 1929 – 9.9% excess
    • 1951 – 7.4% excess
    • 1963 – 3.9% excess
  • It is even higher than the 12.4% seen in 1940 as a result of World War II. We have not seen such volatility in mortality rates since WWI and the Spanish Flu in 1918.

The key questions is: What will happen now?

  • Will the number of deaths quickly bounce back to pre-pandemic levels after successful deployment of the vaccine?
  • Or will we see continued heightened mortality due to factors such as lingering health effects of the pandemic, knock-on effects to the economy and health services, or mutations to the virus making the vaccine less effective?
  • Or could we even see a drop in mortality rates due to factors such as a survivorship effect, innovations in healthcare and vaccine technology, renewed appreciation for respiratory hygiene or an injection of funding to our health and social care institutions?    What do you think?        

What do you think?

Please post your questions in our Friends of Club Vita discussion group on LinkedIn.

1 For 2020 we used a simplified method due to unavailability of exposure data for the year. 

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