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expert reaction to ONS stats on deaths registered weekly in England and Wales, provisional: 15 October 2021

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) have released provisional counts of the number of deaths registered in England and Wales in the week ending 15 October 2021.


Prof Kevin McConway, Emeritus Professor of Applied Statistics, The Open University, said:

“This week’s ONS release of provisional numbers of death registrations concentrates on England and Wales, but also includes some figures for the whole UK, as usual.  The latest bulletin takes the data up to the week 9-15 October.

“After the encouraging news in last week’s bulletin, that the numbers of death registrations across the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate had fallen, indeed for the second week running, the short-term trend in Covid-related deaths this week isn’t so good.  The number across the UK rose by 8% compared to the week before, to 890.  That’s not an enormous increase, and of course the weekly numbers are far, far less than they were early this year before vaccines started to have a major effect.  Numbers of Covid-related death registrations rose in three of the four UK countries, though not in Wales.  In the smaller UK countries, given that weekly deaths involving Covid-19 are low, you’d expect a lot of variation from week to week simply because of the effects of chance.  But that’s not so true for England, where there were more than 90 Covid-related death registrations every day in the most recent week, and so even short-term trends are less affected by random variation.  The weekly number for the latest week in England, 640, is however still lower than it was throughout September.  So while all these deaths are of course to be regretted, I couldn’t say that the position is really concerning, though of course I’d be happier if the numbers were falling.  In any case the changes are not large, and it wouldn’t be far wrong to say that numbers of Covid-related death registrations are varying somewhat around a roughly constant level.

“It’s worth asking whether there’s any seasonal reason why death registrations involving Covid-19 might be increasing at this time of year.  One possibility is that we’re moving into the colder and darker part of the year, and numbers of deaths do always increase from the relatively low levels in the summer to the higher winter levels.  That does tend to happen more in older age groups.  We know that death rates from Covid-19 are very dependent on age. The ONS bulletin gives detailed breakdowns of death registrations involving Covid-19 by age, for England and Wales.  In the most recent week, over three-quarters (77%) of the Covid-related death registrations were of people aged 70 and over.  That proportion has generally been increasing in recent weeks.  For most of the spring and summer, the proportion of Covid-related death registrations that were of over 70s was below 70%, sometimes below 60%, and that went on right till mid-September.  The last time the percentage of over 70s was as high as the latest week’s 77% was in late February this year, as we were coming down from the height of the second pandemic wave, when the proportion of over 70s was above 80% for a long time.  Maybe the recent increase in people in the oldest age groups succumbing to this horrible disease is a short-term statistical blip – we’ll see in coming weeks.  But maybe it has something to do with some waning of the effectiveness of vaccines, which would show up first in older people because they were vaccinated first, and that would emphasise the importance of booster doses.  Or maybe it also has something to do with the move into colder weather having a greater impact on older people, perhaps particularly on those who are frail.  These ONS figures can’t tell us what the causes of the increase actually are – if it even is a real increase as opposed to a short-term blip.

“Turning now to the data on deaths from all causes, the total number of registrations for England and Wales is again above the five-year average for the corresponding weeks in 2015-2019.  That is, we’re still seeing excess death registrations, and indeed the same is true for the UK as a whole.  For England and Wales, this is the 15th consecutive week of excess death registrations.  Some of those excess death registrations directly involve people dying with Covid-19 mentioned on their death certificate, but a large number of them – almost half in the most recent week – do not directly involve Covid-19.  We still don’t have clear data on what is actually causing all these non-Covid excess death registrations – but that will eventually emerge.”



All our previous output on this subject can be seen at this weblink:



Declared interests

Prof Kevin McConway: “I am a Trustee of the SMC and a member of its Advisory Committee.  I am also a member of the Public Data Advisory Group, which provides expert advice to the Cabinet Office on aspects of public understanding of data during the pandemic.  My quote above is in my capacity as an independent professional statistician.”

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