1,000 excess deaths each week as the NHS buckles

The result of 13 years of Conservative government – Owl

Fifty thousand more people died last year than normal, with NHS delays blamed for one of the most deadly 12 months on record.

Chris Smyth, Kat Lay www.thetimes.co.uk

Excluding the pandemic years, 2022 brought the highest excess deaths total since 1951, according to an analysis by The Times.

There were 1,600 more deaths than usual during Christmas week as long waits for ambulances, cold weather and surging flu infections increased mortality rates by a fifth.

Covid accounts only for a minority of recent extra deaths, focusing attention on “compelling” evidence that the crisis in the NHS is killing hundreds of people a week.

Untreated health problems as people were urged to stay away from surgeries and hospitals during the pandemic are also thought to be contributing to the deaths. Experts have also cited lingering after-effects of Covid infection.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics yesterday showed the third consecutive week of more than 1,000 excess deaths in England and Wales and confirmed that last year one of the highest death totals in Britain was recorded.

Ministers say that countries across Europe had high excess deaths last year, pointing to a big increase in flu. But others pinned the blame on the government’s handling of the NHS, where there are long waits for 999 ambulances and emergency treatment in hospitals.

Today 999 call handlers will join paramedics in a second day of strikes in the ambulance service as an estimated 25,000 staff walk out. With ministers publishing draft laws to restrict strikes in the NHS and other public services, health leaders have accused the government of using the powers to “silence workers in their hour of need”.

Adrian Boyle, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said the latest death figures were “shockingly high”. He acknowledged it was “extremely difficult to determine the causes” but pointed to studies showing deaths rose with longer waits at A&E.

“Our own analysis indicates that an estimated 300-500 patients are dying per week across the UK associated with long waiting times in emergency departments,” he said. “This is awful, distressing and completely unacceptable. The health system is not functioning as it should. Our priority should not be to quibble about the data, but to mitigate the harm of this crisis.”

Overall the 656,735 UK deaths last year were 51,159 above the pre-Covid five-year average. The figure was exceeded only in four years prior to 1951 since records began 130 years ago.

Although 2020 and 2021 brought higher excess death totals as the pandemic hit, excess deaths last year were predominantly not driven by Covid. Stuart McDonald, a partner at LCP Health Analytics who works on the Faculty of Actuaries’ Continuous Mortality Investigation, said that even looking at figures adjusted for age, 1963 was the last time deaths had jumped so much above the rate three years earlier.

“Had we not just had two years of very extreme mortality, 2022 would really stand out,” he said, adding that it was most unusual for there to be month after month of high deaths. “At the start of the year we were seeing fewer deaths among older people because a lot of those people had frankly already died [of Covid], but it was clear even then that we were seeing higher deaths among younger people. Since the spring and beyond we’ve had fairly consistently high levels at all ages”.

McDonald said “it’s undeniable that the NHS crisis is part of the story”, adding: “Access to healthcare has been a problem all year and that’s been increasing — waiting times for ambulances [and] A&E. We also know there are people who should have got diagnosed with high blood pressure or should have had a statin who missed out [when the pandemic began].”

The Times reported last year that Professor Sir Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, had been raising alarm in government about an increase in heart deaths in the middle age linked to missed care during the pandemic.

Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, a statistician at Cambridge University, said it was “very difficult to divide up the causes of the excess, but I find evidence around delayed admissions compelling”.

He said that since the summer there had been more than 40,000 excess deaths in England and Wales. Adjusting for an ageing population and subtracting Covid “still leaves an average of around 450 excess non-Covid deaths each week since June”. Spiegelhalter said “multiple factors will be contributing to this: early flu, Covid, the impact of disrupted care in the pandemic, and the acute crisis in the NHS”.

Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, blamed “13 years of Conservative mismanagement of our health service”, saying: “The NHS is in the biggest crisis in its history and the crisis has a cost in lives.”

The Department of Health said: “There are a wide variety of factors that may be contributing to excess deaths and the health and social care secretary continues to receive regular briefings on Covid and flu cases.”

One thought on “1,000 excess deaths each week as the NHS buckles

  1. It would be interesting to see the above graph without the 5 year rolling average but showing who was in Government at the time.

    My guess is that it will consistently show death rates falling under Labour and then going up again after Tories regain power.


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