The Office for National Statistics (ONS) have released provisional counts of the number of deaths registered in England and Wales in the week ending 17 September 2021.
Prof Kevin McConway, Emeritus Professor of Applied Statistics, The Open University, said:
“The latest weekly bulletin from ONS giving provisional figures for death registrations in England and Wales, including some figures for the whole UK, takes the data up to the week 11-17 September. That’s long enough after the August bank holiday that the figures for the latest week won’t be distorted by late registrations when registry offices were closed. However, comparisons between the latest week and the week before might still be affected. That’s because the registration figures for the week after a bank holiday week, which was the week before the latest one in this bulletin, tend to be higher than the true position, because deaths registered late in the actual bank holiday week would generally have been registered in the following week. It would be more informative, generally, to look at numbers classified by when the person’s death actually occurred rather than when it was registered, but those are always incomplete for the most recent week and will be revised upwards later.
“First, on death registrations where Covid-19 is mentioned on the death certificate, the picture isn’t consistent across the whole UK. There were 1,049 such deaths registered in the latest week, which is 5% (53 deaths) higher than the week before. However, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland the numbers barely changed between the latest two weeks – a decrease of 3 Covid-related death registrations in England, and increases of 1 in Wales and 2 in Northern Ireland. Since the numbers of registrations in the week before the latest one would probably have been slightly higher than the underlying figure, perhaps this really represents a slight increase in these three countries, but not large.
“However, in Scotland, the number of Covid-related registrations in the latest week was 135, which is considerably more than the previous week’s figure of 78 – an increase of 73%, or 57 death registrations, in a week. The Scottish figures are not affected by the August bank holiday, because in Scotland that comes at the start of August, not the end. So trends do look rather worse in Scotland, on these registration figures, than in the other UK countries. However, the actual level of deaths involving Covid-19, compared to deaths from other causes, is more concerning in Northern Ireland than in Scotland. In Northern Ireland, for the latest week, 17% of all death registrations mentioned Covid-19 on the certificate. That’s about 1 in 6 of all the death registrations there, and quite a lot more than the corresponding figures for Scotland (11%, or 1 in 9), Wales (10% or 1 in 10) and England (8% or 1 in 13).
“Broadly, these figures for Covid-related death registrations do match the trends for the corresponding weeks in the numbers of deaths within 28 days of a positive test, given on the dashboard at coronavirus.data.gov.uk. At least, that’s the case for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. For Scotland, the dashboard numbers were certainly increasing quite fast for the latest week in the ONS bulletin, compared to the week before, but the numbers of registrations rose faster between those two weeks than the dashboard numbers did. The good news from the dashboard, though, is that there are signs of a slow decrease in numbers of deaths since the latest week in the death registration figures, in all four UK countries – but we’ll have to wait to see whether that matches the death registration trends in later weeks.
“The ONS bulletin is mainly about England and Wales, and gives many more details on deaths there than in the other UK countries. One very interesting point is that evidence is emerging of a trend in the ages of people who sadly die from a cause involving Covid-19. Right back in January and February 2021, when the pandemic was at its height, most of the people whose deaths involved Covid-19 were elderly, and only about 1 in 45 of the Covid-related death registrations were of people aged under 50. But this proportion of deaths of people aged under 50 went up over time. To being with at least, this was probably largely because older people were vaccinated first and so were relatively protected against severe Covid illness and death, while that protection took longer to spread to the under 50s. In July and August this year, about 1 in 12 of registered deaths involving Covid-19 were of people under 50. However, in the most recent weeks, that trend seems to have reversed to some extent, and in the most recent week, only about 1 in 20 of Covid-related death registrations in England and Wales were of people aged under 50. Counts of deaths and death registrations can’t give a reason for this, and so far it’s only a short-term trend that may not continue. However, it’s possible that it is because increased vaccination rates in younger people have protected them more from serious illness and death.
“Turning now to deaths from all causes, the number of registrations in the latest week in England and Wales is down slightly on the week before, but is still quite a lot above the five-year average for 2015-19. So there are excess deaths, compared to the five-year average, and that’s now been the position for 11 weeks in a row, since the first week in July. In the latest week, there were 1,703 excess deaths – about 150 fewer than the previous week (which might have been affected by the bank holiday the week before that), but still a substantial number. It’s also quite a lot higher than the registered Covid-related death registrations in England and Wales in the latest week (851). In other words, half the excess is directly accounted for by deaths involving Covid-19, but the other half is not, and these bulletins don’t give information on other causes of death that might give insight into exactly what’s causing these other deaths. This ONS bulletin doesn’t provide as much information on excess deaths in Scotland or Northern Ireland, but it does give some numbers, and in all four UK countries, numbers of death registrations in the latest week are above the five-year average, and quite a lot further above it than can be accounted for directly by deaths involving Covid-19.”
All our previous output on this subject can be seen at this weblink:
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.”