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expert reaction to ONS data on life expectancy in the UK, 2018-2020

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) have released data on life expectancy in the UK from 2018 to 2020.


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

“It’s not at all surprising that life expectancy at birth, based on the years 2018-2020, fell in men compared to the figure for 2015-2017, and barely changed in women.  The reason is explained very well in the excellent blog that ONS released today to go with their data release and bulletins.  Life expectancy at birth, as shown in these figures, sounds as if it’s how long people might expect to live, or how long people do live on average.  But it isn’t that at all – it’s the average length of time of an imaginary group of people would live, if they were born in 2018-2020, and afterwards, at every age, experienced the same risk of dying as happened to people in the UK in 2018-2020.  The average risk of dying at many ages for 2018-2020 was higher than in previous periods, because of the impact of Covid-19 on death rates in 2020, and that’s why these figures for life expectancy at birth fell for men and remained roughly unchanged for women.  It’s pretty well impossible that the risk of dying at every age, for people born in 2018-2020, will really remain at the 2018-2020 levels for the rest of their lives, so these figures don’t represent how long people born then will actually live, on average.  What I can’t say is how long their average lifetimes will actually be, because I don’t know how those risks of dying at specific ages are going to change in the future.  I’d hope those mortality rates would fall from the 2018-2020 levels, because the effect of Covid-19 is likely to be less in future years.  But it’s always possible, unfortunately, that another pandemic might come along during the lifetime of people born around now.

“That’s why this small change in the most recent life expectancy figures doesn’t concern me much, at least in not relation to other more pressing concerns about Covid-19.  What’s more concerning is the longer term trend in life expectancy, which has been increasing considerably more slowly in the past decade or so, than used to be the case for a long time before that.  The effect of Covid-19 has made it harder to see how that trend might or might not continue into the future, and it’s never been easy to know the reasons for the change in the long-term trend, though a lot of possibilities have been suggested in recent years.”



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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