Non-Covid excess deaths: why are they rising?

Experts call for probe as mortality rates in England and Wales climb despite drop in coronavirus deaths

Ambulance workers at hospital
Ambulance workers treat a patient at a hospital in East London
(Image credit: Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images)

A rise in the number of people dying each week in England and Wales is not being driven by Covid, newly published data shows.

Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that excess deaths – the total number of deaths above the average count for a given period – reached 1,540 in the week ending 24 June. A total of 10,836 deaths were registered in England and Wales, a 16.6% increase on the five-year average.

But only 2.6% (285) of the latest deaths involved Covid-19 – a finding that has triggered calls for “an urgent investigation into what is behind the excess mortality”, reported The Telegraph’s health editor Sarah Knapton.

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‘Alarming trend’

Prior to the end of March, death tallies were lower than usual “despite hundreds of people dying from Covid”, wrote Knapton. But “the situation has reversed” over the past three months, “with overall deaths rising even though Covid deaths have been falling”.

“One alarming trend that emerged in 2020 is very much still with us: people dying at home,” said The Spectator’s data journalist Michael Simmons. The latest weekly figures show that the number of at-home deaths was 31.5% above the five-year average, compared with 12.1% above average in hospitals and 10.3% in care homes.

Overall, “some 13,000 people more than average” have died at home so far this year in England and Wales, reported Simmons. “In hospitals though it’s 7,200 below average and there have been 3,649 fewer in care homes too.”

Dementia and Alzheimer’s remain the leading cause of death in England, while ischaemic heart diseases are the leading causes in Wales.

But experts are pointing towards other factors, including the cost-of-living crisis and lack of healthcare access, as reasons why the mortality rate is increasing even as Covid deaths fall.

Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, told The Telegraph that some of the excess deaths could be down to Covid further weakening already vulnerable peoples’ health. But other, “quite complex” factors were at play, he said.

Hunter suggested that the “current financial situation” could be “exacerbating” the problem of reduced access to healthcare and delays to treatment, as well as causing “chronic stress”. And “reduced activity and sedentary” lifestyles as a result of lockdown restrictions might also have played a part.

Harley Street GP Charles Levinson told The Spectator that while “every slight bump or uptick in the Covid numbers demands endless column inches”, there had been “total silence from so many” on the “damning” overall death statistics.

Over the course of the pandemic, “thousands of people were unable or unwilling to seek medical advice”, he said, adding that “we are not anywhere near to discovering the full extent of this crisis”.

Amid growing calls for answers about the excess deaths hike, Levinson argued that “the reasons behind these horrific numbers are complicated and none of us fully understand them, so that is exactly why there should be an urgent and comprehensive government inquiry”.

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