There has been extensive news coverage of the difficulties experienced by the National Health Service, with some commentators linking the difficulties to an unusual increase in deaths. For example the organisation Pulse headlined on 6th January that “Deaths in England and Wales 20% higher than normal for time of year” and went on to explain that “Figures up to the 23 December show 14,530 deaths registered, which is 20.7% above the past five years or 2,493 excess deaths, the ONS reported.”
Looking into this claim we can confirm that the numbers quoted by Pulse are reproduced from the statistical bulletin published by the ONS on 10th January 2023 which provides data on the numbers of deaths by week for all of the year 2022. In particular it summarises the final 2 weeks of 2022 as:
However, the summary then goes on to compare the week 51 data with the average of deaths for that single week over the 5 year period 2014 to 2019 as follows:
As is shown by the above difference between weeks 51 and 52 for 2022, there is a considerable variation in the numbers from week to week. Although that specific difference may largely be explained by the fact that week 52 included Christmas, it is also the case that the 14,530 deaths registered in week 51 should not be highlighted as unusually high. The following analysis from the ONS data shows that there had been 4 weeks with a higher number of deaths in the previous 7 years, whether or not the Covid influenced deaths are included.
|Deaths per week 2015 to 2022|
|Average Deaths per week||Maximum Weekly Deaths||Minimum Weekly Deaths|
|Deaths excluding Covid involvement:|
|Source: ONS WEB SITE|
We therefore consider that the amount of variation in the number of deaths week by week makes the kind of detailed reporting as provided by the ONS potentially misleading, in particular the use of the term ‘excess deaths’ is pejorative.
Simon Briscoe in his Britain in Numbers blog site has also drawn attention to this subject. In particular, he has pointed out that the number of deaths had grown over the period 2014 to 2019.
Thus, he asserts that when seeking a comparison for week 51 of 2022, the ONS should have taken account of the trend line of the growth in deaths instead of the average of week 51 for the 5 year period.
Since the population of England and Wales continues to grow, it should be no surprise that the number of deaths also increases over time. It seems only reasonable that he ONS should take this growth into account whenever they compare a current figure with any figure from the past.