Covid drops out of top five causes of death in England and Wales for first time since start of pandemic

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The rollout of Covid vaccines has sharply reduced the number of people who become seriously ill or die

Covid-19 has dropped out of the top five leading causes of death in England and Wales for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

Coronavirus was recorded as the main cause of death for 22,454 people in 2022, or 3.9% of all deaths registered, making it the sixth leading cause overall, figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show.

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In both 2020 and 2021 Covid was the leading cause of death, accounting for 73,766 deaths (12.1% of the total) and 67,350 (11.5%) respectively. By contrast, in 2022 dementia and Alzheimer’s disease was the leading cause of death in England and Wales, with 65,967 deaths registered (11.4% of the total), up from 61,250 (10.4%) in 2021.

Other causes of death in the top five included:

  • ischaemic heart diseases (59,356 deaths and 10.3% of the total)
  • chronic lower respiratory diseases (29,815 deaths, 5.2%)
  • cerebrovascular diseases such as strokes and aneurysms (29,274 deaths, 5.1%)
  • trachea, bronchus and lung cancer (28,571 deaths, 5.0%)

The figures come after Covid levels hit record highs in England and Wales last year, with the emergence of new variants driving the estimated number of weekly infections to 3.9 million in early January and 4.4 million at the end of March.

Covid-19 has dropped out of the top five leading causes of death in England and Wales (Photo: Getty Images)Covid-19 has dropped out of the top five leading causes of death in England and Wales (Photo: Getty Images)
Covid-19 has dropped out of the top five leading causes of death in England and Wales (Photo: Getty Images) | AFP via Getty Images

The success of the vaccination programme has been credited for the fall in Covid-related deaths last year, helping to both reduce the number of infected people who go on to become seriously ill or die.

Vaccines were first rolled out across the UK in early 2021 and booster doses were later made available to older and vulnerable people, before being offered to wider age groups.

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The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) last week advised that all children aged six months to four years in clinical risk groups should be offered a Covid jab. It is recommended that youngsters be offered two 3-microgram doses of the Pfizer vaccine with an interval of at least eight weeks between each jab. Further advice on a potential third dose will be issued on this in due course, the JCVI says.

Vaccination of children aged six months to four years old who are not in a clinical risk group is not currently advised. NHS England has said it will start offering vaccinations to those who are eligible from mid-June.

Millions of people are also set to receive a spring Covid booster jab from this month. Around five million people in total are eligible for the vaccine up until the end of June, including those aged 75 and over and anyone aged five and over who is immunosuppressed.

Care home residents will be the first in line for the jabs, with the booster programme now underway in England, and all other eligible people can book their jab online from 5 April, with the first appointments commencing the week of 17 April.

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‘Dementia and Alzheimer’s leading cause of death among females’

Sarah Caul, ONS head of mortality analysis, said the figures represent a “significant change” in the leading causes of death since the beginning of the pandemic, adding that more males than females are dying for the third year in a row - a reversal of the trend since the 1980s.

Some 292,064 male deaths were registered in England and Wales last year, compared to 285,096 female deaths. Among males, the leading cause of death was ischaemic heart disease, while dementia and Alzheimer’s were the most common among females. Ms Caul said the latter is “probably due to females living longer on average than males”.

Samantha Benham-Hermetz, director of policy and public affairs at the charity Alzheimer’s Research UK, described the figures as “a stark reminder of the terrible and far-reaching effects of dementia on our society.”

She continued: “Our most recent survey showed that two in 10 people are unaware that dementia is even a cause of death, yet last year it claimed nearly 66,000 lives in England and Wales alone.

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“Despite its devastating impact, and in contrast with other leading causes of death like heart disease or cancer, there are still no treatments available on the NHS that can slow or stop it. As the impact of the pandemic recedes, we must learn from the lessons of Covid-19 and speed up progress in finding new ways to treat, diagnose and prevent dementia.”

As for most common causes of death broken down by age and sex, Covid came in third last year among males aged 80 and over, but was the only group in which the virus appeared in the top five.

Overall, the number of deaths registered last year in England and Wales (577,160) was lower than in 2021 (586,334) and 2020 (607,922), but the total was 6.2% above the five-year average, with 33,747 “excess” or extra deaths.

High levels of excess deaths have been recorded in all three years of the pandemic, but Covid is likely to only have played a minor role in the figures for 2022. Health experts suggest seasonal viruses such as flu, the impact of the summer heatwave, pressures on the NHS and access to medical services are among other factors contributing to last year’s excess deaths.

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