An estimated 62,750 excess deaths resulted in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic in England and Wales, according to demographic experts at Oxford’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science – who reveal life expectancy was cut for men and women by -1.3 and -1.0 years respectively.
In a recently-published paper, the Leverhulme team calculate more people died in 2020 by comparing the number of deaths from all causes in 2020 with mortality trends from the past decade. This approach helps understand the overall mortality impact of the pandemic. Using data on registered deaths in 2020, the team was able to compute life expectancy for that year and compare it with past levels in England and Wales.
Ridhi Kashyap one the study’s authors says, ‘As the nation reels from the shocking news that the number of deaths in the UK, for which COVID-19 is listed on the death certificate, has exceeded 100,000, our research provides further understanding of the tragic impact of the pandemic in England and Wales.
‘Our calculations show almost 63,000 more people died in the first 10 months of the pandemic in England and Wales than would usually be expected to die from any cause between March and December. This elevated mortality significantly reduced life expectancy in 2020.’
The specialist demographers studied excess deaths from the first registered death in March until 20 November, before the current spike in cases. They found, in this period, there were more than 57,419 excess deaths in England and Wales. According to the study, ‘This estimate represents a 15.1% increase in deaths compared with the expected level.’
But the researchers have extended their timeframe with more recent data and estimate that, to the end of December, the number of excess deaths in England and Wales grew by another 5,000 in the last five weeks of the year.
The data from this study was calculated by examining figures from the past 10 years, whereas ONS (Office of National Statistics) figures on excess mortality are calculated comparing a five-year period.
One of Leverhulme team, José Manuel Aburto says, ‘Our analyses rely on modelling which compares 2020 mortality levels to figures from the past decade. This enabled us to take into account changes in population structure over this period, the fact more people now live longer than 85, and seasonal patterns of mortality more robustly.
‘But the sad fact is that, in 2020, life expectancy for both men and women reduced by over a year, wiping out gains made on life expectancy in the past decade. Men experienced greater losses in life expectancy, and experienced higher death rates than women at all ages over the pandemic.’
Ridhi Kashyap adds, ‘The magnitude of these losses in life expectancy are especially significant given that over the course of the 20th century we saw increases in life expectancy in England and Wales of nearly three years every decade. While there has been a slowdown in improvements in life expectancy since 2010, with a dip in 2015 in particular due to a bad flu season, the fall that we saw over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic is truly unprecedented.’
Meanwhile, the paper says ‘a significant fraction of the unexplained excess mortality over the first wave of the pandemic may also be attributable to undiagnosed COVID-19’, as testing capacity was more limited during that time.
However, the pandemic may have also had indirect effects on other causes of death, as ‘fear of COVID-19 and the overstretching of the healthcare system may have deterred care seeking for both chronic and acute conditions, potentially increasing mortality from other, non-COVID, causes. Similarly, restrictions might have decreased deaths from external causes such as road traffic accidents, or increased deaths from causes such as suicide’.
According to the paper, ‘Simply counting total excess deaths does not provide an understanding of the substantial variation by age and sex over time in elevated mortality risks.’
To 20 November, male excess deaths accounted for 55.4% (31,791 deaths). Men in all age groups accounted for more of the excess deaths than women. But there was clear evidence older adults accounted for most excess deaths. Among the groups 75–85 and 85 and older, there were 17.2% and 13.7% more deaths than expected.
The number of deaths among middle-aged adults and younger retired people, between 45–64 and 64–74 years of age, respectively were 17.6% and 16.0% above the baseline. But, the researchers say, ‘We estimate no excess deaths among those younger than 15 years. Meanwhile, the 15–44-year-old age group saw 652 excess deaths (6.2%) above the expected level.
The researchers show how these excess deaths, to 20 November, had major implications for life expectancy between 2019 and 2020. According to the paper, ‘Life expectancy dropped a staggering 0.9 and 1.2 years for women and men, respectively, between these years.’
But, the team believes, these figures increased further, so that, by the end of December the impact on life expectancy was -1.0 and -1.3 respectively.