More than 400 extra people were dying every day in the run up to Christmas in England and Wales compared to before Covid, NationalWorld can reveal, as concerns mount about the potentially deadly impact of the NHS crisis.
Analysis of the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) data by NationalWorld shows 2,969 more deaths were registered across the two countries in the week ending 23 December when compared against the average for the same week between 2015 and 2019 – an average of 424 extra deaths per day.
And even when compared against the same week in 2020, which saw the spread of the Alpha coronavirus variant, there were 1,496 extra deaths this year.
The daily average of 424 deaths is similar to the number of Covid deaths being recorded at the end of November and start of December 2020, according to the government coronavirus dashboard. At the time, England was either in a national lockdown or had tough tiered restrictions and Wales had restrictions on hospitality and was gearing up for a lockdown.
The figures mean that deaths were up by over a quarter (25.8%) across England and Wales in the week to 23 December compared to the pre-pandemic average. A total of 14,491 deaths were recorded across the seven-day period this year (excluding people who do not live in England and Wales but died there), compared to an average of 11,522 between 2015 and 2019, 12,995 in 2020, and 12,984 in 2021.
Wales saw particularly high excess mortality, with deaths up by 33.8% in the latest week compared to 25.2% in England.
Figures for Scotland and Northern Ireland cover different time periods so it is not possible to calculate a UK-wide figure. The latest Northern Ireland figures however also show very high excess mortality in recent weeks. Scotland’s figures are not as up to date.
While excess mortality in England and Wales accelerated in the most recent week, the ONS figures show deaths were also up by 15.1% in the last four weeks and 14.3% over the last eight weeks, covering back to the week ending 4 November. During that time, an extra 11,995 people have died compared to the pre-Covid five-year average, or an average of 214 per day.
The ONS was unable to comment on what was driving the increase in deaths in recent weeks, but said it would continue to investigate changes during its regular publication schedule. Its most recent analysis of excess mortality covers only to November. After adjustments to take into account the changing size and age of the population, the death rate in November was significantly higher than previous years in both countries.
NHS staff are currently working through a crisis described as “worse than any they have ever seen before” by the Doctors Association UK. The lobbying group, which is run by frontline doctors, has been calling for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to declare a national emergency.
The Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCM) has said it believes between 300 and 500 people could be dying every week due to delays in emergency or urgent care. Dr Adrian Boyle, RCM president, told Times Radio on New Year’s Day that a surge in flu cases was compounding existing problems in the NHS, leading to the unprecedented pressures being seen in the health service.
He said: “If you look at the graphs, they all are going the wrong way and I think there needs to be a real reset. We need to be in a situation where we cannot just shrug our shoulders and say this winter was terrible, let’s do nothing until next winter.
“We need to increase our capacity within our hospitals, we need to make sure that there are alternative ways so that people aren’t all just funnelled into the ambulance service and emergency department.”
Last week we revealed how nine out of 10 hospital trusts in England were dangerously busy between Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. It is widely regarded that 85% is a safe limit for bed occupancy, but 93.2% of beds were occupied over the seven-day period, with 120 out of 137 NHS trusts busier than the safe limit.
There is also alarm at a drop in flu vaccination rates among at-risk groups this year across England, Wales and Scotland. In England, flu hospital admissions have reached their highest level in a decade, but fewer pregnant women, toddlers, and elderly and vulnerable people have been vaccinated.
NationalWorld is tracking the winter NHS crisis across three nations of the UK – you can find all the data and graphs you need in our trackers here for England, Wales and Scotland. Northern Ireland does not produce up to date health statistics over the winter period.
Yesterday (9 January) Health Secretary Steve Barclay warned against blaming long ambulance waiting times for the rise in excess mortality rates across the UK, saying he had discussed the issue in detail with the chief medical officer and the medical director for NHS England.
Liberal Democrat MP for Bath Wera Hobhouse told the Commons about a seriously ill constituent who died after waiting “nearly two hours” for an ambulance to arrive, adding: “There are now up to 500 avoidable deaths a week due to A&E delays, according to the Royal College of Emergency Medicine.
“Will the Government support the Ambulance Waiting Times (Local Reporting) Bill introduced by my friend the member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) to identify hotspots for the largest waiting times and put support where it is most urgently needed?”
Steve Barclay replied: “The point to note is this is something firstly that has happened internationally. It can’t be ascribed just to one issue as is so often the case.
“Some of the excess mortality will be due directly to Covid itself, albeit that will be a diminishing proportion, but it is also the case that some of the non-Covid excess mortality will be driven by quite a wide combination of factors.
“I think we have got to be quite cautious when those sort of numbers are bandied around.”
A Welsh Givernment spokesperson said: “Comparisons on a weekly basis are likely to be unreliable due to the volatility of figures.
“We continue to monitor the latest data to better understand the reasons for excess deaths since the start of the pandemic. The Science Evidence Advice group is publishing a series of papers to help us learn more about the pandemic’s impact on mortality rates.”