Almost 9,000 excess deaths were recorded in December alone in the UK - but what is driving it?
Thousands of extra people are currently dying from non-Covid causes every month in the UK compared to pre-pandemic levels, analysis of official deaths data reveals.
Almost 9,000 more people died in December alone compared to what would normally be expected – despite there being fewer than 4,000 deaths involving coronavirus during that time.
NationalWorld analysis of data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), National Records Scotland (NRS) and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) shows 60,162 deaths were registered in the UK in December 2021.
Between 2015 and 2019, an average of 51,462 people died each December.
That gives a total of 8,700 ‘excess deaths’ – fatalities above what would normally be expected – equivalent to an increase of 17%.
The figure is far higher than the official Covid death toll. ONS figures show 3,853 deaths were registered across the four nations where Covid was mentioned anywhere on the death certificate.
The 8,700 extra deaths in December were among 62,130 recorded across 2021 as a whole.
Excess deaths were registered in 10 out of 12 months in 2021.
Between January and May, the number of Covid deaths exceeded the total number of excess deaths – but since then, the reverse has been true.
Between June and December, 39,514 excess deaths were recorded compared to 22,040 Covid deaths.
What are people dying of?
Office for National Statistics data for England and Wales shows deaths from flu and pneumonia are still far lower than usual – making the number of extra people dying from other conditions yet more pronounced.
December saw 588 excess deaths where dementia or Alzheimer’s was the cause across the two nations (9.8% more than usual), and 491 extra deaths from coronary heart disease (10.4% higher).
However, deaths from both these causes were lower than average for 2021 as a whole.
The ONS told NationalWorld it is currently carrying out its own in-depth analysis of excess deaths and the factors involved, so is unable to comment on the trend at this time.
A spokesperson said: “Throughout the pandemic we have responded to the need for data with timely and robust analysis of mortality.
“We will be providing more analysis of excess deaths in England and Wales across all age groups, causes and settings, to investigate what is driving the higher numbers of deaths we have seen which are not due to Covid-19.”
Why it’s important to look at excess deaths
At the start of the pandemic, scientists and government ministers consistently said excess deaths would be the best measure of how well the UK had weathered the crisis, as it takes into account deaths indirectly caused by Covid or the national response to it.
This could include those who died because of delayed cancer treatment, or from conditions that were not picked up because people did not go to doctor’s appointments.
The Health Foundation charity says it is complicated to try to unpick Covid deaths from excess deaths from other causes.
Covid may have caused a genuine reduction in some other kinds of deaths, such as flu, with fewer people catching viruses due to better hygiene measures.
But apparent decreases in other deaths during the pandemic, such as lung cancer, may not be genuine.
The charity said that since the risk of developing lung cancer will not have changed during the pandemic, the drop is likely to reflect how delays in diagnosis meant the true cause of death was never recorded for some people.
How many extra people have died so far in the pandemic?
There were 146,574 extra deaths recorded across 2020 and 2021, when comparing each year against the five-year average before the pandemic.
This is lower than the number of deaths where Covid has been listed on the death certificate, which stood at 175,943 at the end of 2021.
That reflects the fact that some Covid victims would have been expected to die anyway of other causes.
Where have the most people died?
England saw the highest increase in deaths in December, with 7,346 (17.5%) more than average.
Regionally, the East of England and the West Midlands bore the brunt, with deaths more than a fifth higher than usual – 21.1% and 20.9% respectively.
In Scotland there were 689 excess deaths in December (13.3%), in Wales 470 (16.4%) and in Northern Ireland 195 (14.7%).
For 2021 as a whole, Northern Ireland fared worst with 1,817 excess deaths (11.5%).
That compared to 51,765 in England (10.4%), 2,721 in Wales (8.1%) and 5,827 in Scotland (10.1%).
You can compare council areas in the map below for both December and 2021 as a whole.
A message from the editor:
Thank you for reading. NationalWorld is a new national news brand, produced by a team of journalists, editors, video producers and designers who live and work across the UK. Find out more about who’s who in the team, and our editorial values. We want to start a community among our readers, so please follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and keep the conversation going. You can also sign up to our newsletters and get a curated selection of our best reads to your inbox every day.