At the peak of the lockdowns, thousands were dying every week. Newspaper front pages demanded action. But in the latest week’s data, covering the week to 12 August, some 1,082 more people than would be expected in a normal year died in the UK. These so-called ‘excess deaths’ have averaged 1,000 for 15 weeks of this year. Yet unlike Covid deaths, they are met with near silence.
But it isn’t Covid that’s causing these deaths anymore. In the latest figures, published by the ONS, just 6 per cent of English and Welsh deaths had anything to do with Covid. Of nearly 10,000 weekly deaths in England, just 561 mentioned the virus on the death certificate.
Most excess deaths now occur in private homes and previous studies have shown this is driven by the wealthy avoiding hospitals. That trend is continuing. In the week to 12 August, deaths at home were some 22 per cent above average, while only 9 per cent higher than expected in hospitals and 3 per cent higher in care homes. In fact, since the start of the year, there have been 6,000 fewer deaths than we’d expect in hospitals and care homes but over 17,000 more in people’s homes in England and Wales alone.
The problem is by no means confined to England. As is often the case when it comes to health, Scotland is faring worse. By the end of July, the rate of excess deaths among Scots was 28 per 100,000 people – 6 per cent higher than the south-west of England which is the second worst affected part of the country. NHS waiting times and backlogs are confounded in a country where poverty, addiction and preventable disease already run at extremely high levels.
What’s worrying doctors is just how unexpected these deaths are. We’ve just been through a pandemic with a virus that killed off the most medically vulnerable. The elderly were 70 times more likely to be killed by it. So given that, you might expect deaths to be displaced: people who probably would have died this year from old age and natural causes, dying a year or two earlier because of Covid. Shouldn’t we be seeing lower-than-average numbers of deaths?
One group with particularly high excess deaths in recent months has been 30-59-year-olds. Two of the leading causes of these deaths are heart attacks and diabetes, conditions that doctors fear got worse or went untreated during the lockdown years. People who need treatment now are struggling to get it. Waiting lists are larger than ever, it takes six minutes for 111 to answer your call – 20 times longer than it should — and getting an appointment with your GP is a total lottery. Unless these issues are addressed, these diseases will continue to go untreated.
Doctors and researchers are increasingly alarmed by the deaths but the government seems intent on ignoring the scandal. Until very recently government ministers seemed completely unaware of the problem. The Department of Health has finally commissioned an investigation, but for thousands of families, it is already too late.Australia acts as an early warning system for the northern hemisphere because it gets its flu season six months before us. They’ve just had their worst flu season in five years
Things are likely to get worse too. Every winter Britain suffers tens of thousands of excess deaths associated with cold weather, among the highest in Europe. In 2014/15, some 44,000 died in the winter months, last year it was 29,000 (excluding Covid) and the year before 24,000. And there’s no sign of those figures going down. The NHS is in a permanent winter crisis and that can only get worse.