Covid: 2020 saw most excess deaths since World War Two

A nurse in ICU in a hospital in Tooting

PA Media

The Covid pandemic has caused excess deaths to rise to their highest level since World War Two.

There were close to 697,000 deaths in the UK in 2020 – nearly 91,000 more than would be expected based on the average in the previous five years.

This represents an increase of 15% – making it the largest rise in excess deaths for more than 75 years.

When the age and size of the population is taken into account, 2020 saw the worst death rates since the 2000s.

This measure – known as age-standardised mortality – takes into account population growth and age.

The data is only available until November – so the impact of deaths in December have not yet been taken into account – but it shows the death rate at that stage was at its highest in England since 2008.

Chart showing excess deaths

Chart showing death rates

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Analysis box by Nick Triggle, health correspondent

The data on deaths can be confusing.

On one hand, excess deaths are at their highest since World War Two.

On the other, death rates, once age and size of population are taken into account, are at their worst level for a little over a decade only.

How should that be interpreted?

Excess deaths are basically a measure of how many more people are dying than would be expected based on the previous few years.

Clearly, 2020 saw a huge and unexpected rise in deaths because of the pandemic, just as World War Two led to a sudden jump.

But in determining how much those jumps affected the chances of dying, a measure known as age-standardised morality, which takes into account the age and size of the population, is important.

It shows the pandemic has undone more than a decade’s worth of progress. And that is significant – especially given this has happened despite lockdowns and social-distancing measures to stop the spread of the virus.

But it also helps put the death toll over the past 12 months in a wider context.

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King’s Fund chief executive Richard Murray said the picture was likely to worsen, given Covid deaths were rising following the surge in infections over recent weeks.

“The UK has one of the highest rates of excess deaths in the world, with more excess deaths per million people than most other European countries or the US,” he said.

‘It will take a public inquiry to determine exactly what went wrong, but mistakes have been made.

“In a pandemic, mistakes cost lives. Decisions to enter lockdown have consistently come late, with the government failing to learn from past mistakes or the experiences of other countries.

“The promised “protective ring” around social care in the first wave was slow to materialise and often inadequate, a contributing factor to the excess deaths among care home residents last year.

‘Like many countries, the UK was poorly prepared for this type of pandemic.”

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