The start of 2021 gives us an opportunity to take stock on the Covid-19 pandemic. Few people will have shed a tear for the passing of 2020 – it was an awful year. But how does this pandemic compare to previous years and what lessons can we learn?
Ed Conway of Sky News has provided a useful ‘data dive’ on the full-year figures for England and Wales in historical perspective. In terms of raw death toll, there were more non-military deaths in 2020 – over 600,000 – than in any year since the ‘Spanish flu’ year of 1918. When adjusted for population, the figures look a little more benign. About one per cent of the population died in 2020, the highest rate since 2003.
However, this is not a good comparison because we have had a declining death rate for decades for a variety of reasons, including better living conditions, improvements in healthcare and the decline of smoking. When Conway compared deaths historically to deaths in the previous five years, it is clear that 2020 marked a sharp upward spike in mortality. Excess civilian deaths in 2020 were up 12 percent compared to recent years – something not seen since the middle of the Second World War.
A further adjustment can be made for age. After all, the UK population has been getting older. Conway argues that, in 2020, based on actuarial statistics, instead of a further improvement in mortality, there was a 13 percent decline in age-adjusted lifespan – the worst year since 1929. Moreover, the pandemic is far from over, with an average of over 700 Covid deaths per day at the start of January.
Conway argues that things could have been even worse without the lockdowns. Others would argue that at least some of the deaths that occurred were caused either by lockdowns or the climate of fear generated by the constant discussion of the pandemic. In September, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that “between 7 March and 1 May 2020, non-COVID-19 deaths were 15.3% above five-year average levels for that period” but added that “from then up until 10 July, non-COVID-19 deaths have been 6.0% below the average.”
Looking at ONS death registrations for the period December 28, 2019 to January 1, 2021, there were 614,114 deaths, of which 80,830 where Covid-19 was the main or contributory cause of death. The average deaths for the same period over the previous five years was 539,083. Therefore, there were 75,031 excess deaths. In other words, there were fewer deaths than expected from non-Covid causes. No doubt many of the people who would have died anyway in 2020 were killed by Covid-19. But the big increase in deaths cannot simply be explained in that fashion.
The increase in deaths affected all age groups over the age of 15. Here’s some back-of-an-envelope figures, based on ONS data, which indicate that, while the big absolute increases have been among the oldest people, there were significant increases in mortality even among middle-aged people, too.