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How many more will be dead by Christmas?

Danny Dorling

In the week after the schools went back in England and Wales, an extra 538 people died (77 a day). Over the previous five years, an average of 8720 people had died that week in September, but this year the number surged to 9258. How many more would be dead by Christmas?

The next week there was a lull: only 289 excess deaths. But then the universities returned, and the excess mortality count doubled. In the week ending 25 September, 574 more people had died each day. There was a drop to 319 excess deaths the following week, and then a rise to 678 (97 a day). On and on it went, week after week after week. Almost five thousand excess deaths were recorded between the schools going back and the start of December. The year was 2015 and most people weren’t paying attention. No one read the numbers out.

The rise in mortality in autumn 2015 had little to do with the schools or universities returning. It wasn’t due to the onset of winter. It wasn’t because of a second wave of a new virus. It was business as usual. After five years of swingeing cuts to health and social services, many more people died each day than had in the five previous years – which were themselves not particularly good times, but the depths of recession.

Imagine if in autumn 2015 you had been told how many people were dying each day. Would you have been fearful? Or would you have said to yourself: ‘They are mostly old, or poor; this is all very unfortunate, but I won’t be in that grisly rising aggregate’? It can be hard to imagine what effect the relentless reporting of the excess deaths in autumn 2015 might have had. Imagine now, however, that the figures had been read out all year and you had already heard much higher numbers in January and February, along with front-page stories of the health service falling apart and undertakers running out of mortuary space.

The mortality surge lasted for weeks at the start of 2015. It went up suddenly. In one week in January, as the hospitals became overwhelmed, the number of excess deaths rose from 448 to to 4050, then 3721, 3220, 2408, 1719, 1470, not dipping below 1000 until mid-March. It rose again to 1973 in the worst week in April, and to 1290 in the worst week of June. Had every newspaper been reporting the weekly (never mind daily) figures in 2015, we could even have imagined five waves by the autumn. All those earlier figures were far higher than the autumn of 2015; and – so far – the excess deaths for autumn 2015 are far higher than in autumn 2020. The major difference, of course, is that five years ago there was no talk of the numbers soaring exponentially out of control. The pool of potential victims appeareda limited, and didn’t include government ministers, newspaper editors, or most of their voters and readers.

The most common listed causes of the excess deaths in 2015 were Alzheimer’s and dementia; but there was no biological reason these diseases should have been killing people earlier than they had before. The most important reasons were neglect, underfunding and the system becoming overwhelmed. For younger adults the causes were described as diseases of despair (drug overdose, suicide, alcoholic liver disease). Influenza played a small part, but in nearby countries it was dealt with by better funded health services and far fewer died.

If we had reported mortality in 2015 as we report it today, would something have been done about a problem that was far easier to fix than a new pandemic? Might the 2015 election have turned out differently? Or would we then, as now, have been paralysed by fear? As it is, we now have not only Covid-19 to deal with, but the continued legacy of austerity, and Brexit to come, not to mention the climate crisis. The long-term solutions, once we have a vaccine, are the same as were needed five years ago. Whether or not we will reach for them is less clear.


Comments

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  • 6 October 2020 at 3:34am
    davidovich says:
    In Australia we are confined to a five kilometres radius from our homes and the rate of new cases may well stabilising . But the air above the town where I live is clearing visibly. The political air (and its graceless graces) is as thick ( in every conceivable sense of that word ) as ever.

  • 6 October 2020 at 6:21pm
    Lawrence Waterman says:
    Thank you for an eye-opening analysis. There has been a deserved focus on the serial incompetence of a Cabinet of the talentless assembled with only one criterion "what is your position on Brexit?" This blog raises the other key political issue, the politics itself. The choices made from outsourcing to mates in private companies while crudely calling it "NHS Track and Trace", the sidelining, under-funding and disrespecting of local authorities and all other public servants who aren't lickspittles, the procurement decisions that centralise, etc. etc. They may be logistically useless but their ideology and 10 years of Tory rule are what have driven the UK pandemic to world-beating standards.

    • 11 October 2020 at 9:25am
      Ander Broadman says: @ Lawrence Waterman
      Lawrence- I’m sure you’ve drawn the correct conclusions from the article, but irrespective of that your comment builds on the themes of the article.
      What’s interested me is how many comments don’t!

  • 6 October 2020 at 6:39pm
    Worldy Wiseman says:
    Was the 2015 excess statistically significant or within the variance levels that should be expected? Was the trend continued or was it a year blip? You have not presented enough data to form a view, but imply it was a blip, in which case neither that nor correlation with universities returning doesn't suggest a causal connection with deprivation. The insurers -who are paid to worry about life expectancy- believe that we have reached peak life expectancy for now as the wartime generation, nourished by rations and not overweight, were succeeded by the overweight baby-boomers.

    • 7 October 2020 at 4:44am
      Amateur Emigrant says: @ Worldy Wiseman
      The ONS provisional analysis of the 2015 blip can be read here: https://bit.ly/2GISWXK
      And Fullfact.org has a piece about death rate trends to 2018 here: https://fullfact.org/health/deaths-in-the-UK-graph/

  • 6 October 2020 at 7:24pm
    D Thomas says:
    Mr. Dorling: Many thanks for this note. I am writing from the US, where indifference and cultism prevail. Is it possible that we have now gotten to the point where numb indifference is the posture that evidences the acceptance or the welcoming of what Christopher Lasch (1978) pointed out was already the war of all against all? Are we in fact near to Colin Turnbull's (much disputed) portrait of the Ik? As Hannah Arendt pointed out long ago: "we may say that radical evil has emerged in connection with a system in which all men have become equally superfluous" (Origins, p. 459). Given all we have seen in the period 1900 to the present, should we be surprised at the indifference you so correctly show? All best wishes in your battle to make people aware, David Thomas, Rockville Maryland, USA 10-6-20

  • 7 October 2020 at 1:46am
    Andrew Broadbent says:
    The government's mantra has been 'the NHS was not overwhelmed' - meaning there were no pictures of lines of trolleys with dying people as in Italy and Spain. Of course the health service was overwhelmed - not surprising since the UK has a fraction of the intensive care beds, and hospital specialists of Germany for example. Many treatments other than Covid were postponed. Waiting lists and waiting times for non-covid conditions are mushrooming . Many covid sufferes at home or in care homes had no treamtne, and many died. The demonstrated success of far eastern countries in suppressing the virus, keeping deaths to a minimum, and then liberating the economy seems to cut little ice in the UK. This simple logic has been rejected in favour of a 'balance' or 'trade off' between health and the economy. This is a false dichotomy. The 'let the virus free, the vulnerable can protect themselves' strategy - has resulted in the highest deaths, and the worst economic performance in Europe.

  • 8 October 2020 at 3:02pm
    OldScrounger says:
    If attention had been paid to the excess deaths and their likely main cause (poverty) before the 2015 election, that issue might have swung it in favour of the poor. The opportunity was missed. We, with no election guaranteed in less than four years, lack that option. So what do we do? Grit our teeth, mark time and do nothing except flinch occasionally as Death's scythe slices through our near neighbours and relatives but not us -- yet? Or something else?

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