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expert reaction to latest ONS stats on deaths in England and Wales up to week ending 19 June 2020

The Office for National Statistics (ONS), have released the latest data for deaths int he UK including deaths from COVID-19 in all settings. 

 

Prof Sir David Spiegelhalter, Chair of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication, University of Cambridge, said:

“For deaths registered in England and Wales in the week ending June 19, there were no excess deaths compared to the five-year average. But 783 Covid deaths were recorded.  The lack of excess deaths is explained by non-Covid deaths being 8% below the five-year average.

“This matches the pattern observed from January to early March, when the mild winter and limited flu meant deaths were 9% below the five-year average.  This led to a total deficit of over 11,000 deaths before the epidemic took off in mid-March.

“But all is not back to normal.  In the week ending June 19, there were around 1,100 fewer registered non-Covid deaths in hospital, and around 800 extra in homes.

“Altogether over the epidemic, compared with what we would have expected from the first part of the year, there have been around 12,500 fewer non-Covid deaths in hospital, and around 14,000 extra in homes.

“This wholesale move of deaths from hospital to home deserves further attention.  Many people would prefer to die at home, but we do not know the quality of these deaths, or how many might have been delayed had they gone to hospital.”

 

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

“At the broad national (England and Wales) level , this week’s new ONS data based on registrations of deaths continues the encouraging pattern of the last several weeks. Numbers of deaths in which COVID-19 was mentioned on the death certificate have fallen to their lowest level since late March. The number of deaths from all causes in the most recent available week (ending 19 June) was below the average number in the corresponding week over the previous five years. This measure, the number of excess deaths, is generally seen as a good way of measuring the overall impact of the epidemic, for example because it can take into account deaths from other causes whose importance might have increased, for example because of the reorganisation of health services to deal with the new virus. Weekly numbers of deaths have not been below the average of the past five years since mid-March. The ONS report also points out falls in numbers of deaths, and numbers of excess deaths above the five-year average in care homes and in hospitals. I can’t see any evidence, at this broad national level, of an important disturbance to the downward trends that might have resulted from loosenings of lockdown, though we must bear in mind that the period covered by the report only goes up to a week and a half ago, and that any increase in cases of the diseases would take some time to show up as increased deaths.

“But the virus hasn’t gone away. There were still almost 800 deaths, registered in the week ending 19 June, in which COVID-19 was mentioned on the death certificate – and if we look instead by the date when death actually occurred, there were over 600 that week, and that number will rise because of deaths being registered late for various reasons. About 1 in every 12 deaths registered in that week (8.4% of all deaths) had COVID mentioned on the death certificate, and COVID was mentioned in about 1 in 8 of deaths  (12.9%) that took place in care homes. The percentages of deaths mentioning COVID are down, both in care homes and overall, but they are still quite high.

“I think this perhaps points to a change in the relative importance of different sources of information on the epidemic. The weekly ONS death registration figures have been extremely useful, because they allow overall trends to be followed in a way that is not affected strongly by changes in testing or recording methods. ONS will continue producing them, and we should still pay attention to them. But, unless and until there is a major second wave of infections, the concentration will have to be much more on acting quickly to contain outbreaks that occur in areas that are a lot smaller than the whole of England and Wales. The ONS report does contain information on numbers of deaths in regions, and points out that, while numbers of registered deaths involving COVID-19 have continued to fall in all regions of England and in Wales, the number of deaths is running somewhat above the five-year average in Wales and in the East Midlands in particular, and below the five-year average particularly in the East of England. This is useful information for monitoring what’s going on, but not prompt enough or on a fine enough scale to help much in dealing with local outbreaks. ONS do publish numbers of deaths from all causes, and numbers that mention COVID-19, for local authorities, alongside the aggregate data for England and Wales. These are definitely useful in terms of their local scale, but can vary a lot from week to week because of random factors, and are also not really prompt enough to signal the need for actions like the current Leicester lockdown. So this emphasises again the importance of an accurate and effective test, track and trace service, of local surveillance, and particularly of the ability to take quick and effective local action to deal with any outbreaks as soon as they are detected.”

 

https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/deathsregisteredweeklyinenglandandwalesprovisional/latest

 

All our previous output on this subject can be seen at this weblink: www.sciencemediacentre.org/tag/covid-19

 

Declared interests

Prof Kevin McConway: “Prof McConway is a member of the SMC Advisory Committee, but his quote above is in his capacity as a professional statistician.”

None others received

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