How the ONS has helped shape understanding of the coronavirus death toll

Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on mortality is an incredibly important but complex task. The role of the ONS has always been to ensure the public and decision-makers in England and Wales are informed by timely and high-quality analysis and statistics. This has never been more evident than during this pandemic. Ben Humberstone explains how ONS statistics have supported decision-making so far and the future analyses we have planned.  

To build a clearer picture of COVID-19 deaths and how this novel virus is affecting different demographics, it’s important to look at what has happened in the past three months.

We’ve been able to carry out detailed analysis of death certificates and we’ve recently published updated statistics on non COVID-19 excess deaths during the pandemic. We will continue to update this analysis as we gather more data.

However, the report showed that between 7 March and 1 May 2020, a total of 130,009 deaths were registered across England and Wales; this represents an excess of 46,380 death registrations compared to the five-year average, and 12,900 of these deaths (27.8%) did not involve the coronavirus (COVID-19).

We’ve also extended our regular weekly deaths to provide a baseline understanding for the public and policymakers. This has included looking at the impact on care homes and deaths in other settings. Up to week ending 29 May our latest death registrations show 45,516 deaths involving COVID-19 to date.

We’ve learnt that of those dying with COVID-19 in March and April, nine in 10 had a pre-existing condition and during April 2020 COVID-19 was the most frequent underlying cause. We’ve also been able to show that it is a disease that has preyed on the elderly and more vulnerable.

Our local areas and deprivation analysis has shown that those living in the most deprived areas are most at risk. Our latest release out today shows that although London had some of the highest COVID-19 mortality rates in the country during March and April, it is now experiencing lower mortality rates compared with most areas. During May, the region with the highest age-adjusted COVID-19 mortality rate was the North East where the rate was double that of London.

As well as analysing death certificates we’ve looked at other sources; our release on the impact of COVID-19 on ethnic groups linked 2011 Census records to death registrations to provide mortality rates by ethnicity. This analysis not only showed that black people – and other BAME groups – had higher COVID-19 mortality rates compared to their white counterparts, but the extent to which socio-demographic characteristics played a part.

We’ve also investigated COVID-19 related deaths by occupation to understand whether certain jobs have a higher degree of risk and found that men with public-facing jobs – such as security guards, taxi drivers, bus and coach drivers and retail assistants – were more likely to die. We also found that healthcare workers (such as doctors and nurses) had similar rates of COVID-19 deaths to the general population, whereas those working in social care were at significantly higher risk.

All this has helped build a picture of the full extent of the coronavirus death toll, who has been most affected and those areas with the highest risk.

What else have we done?

In the early stages of the pandemic, the ONS was asked to assist the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) with the initial estimates of deaths – including excess deaths – from COVID-19. We developed models to estimate the number of deaths of people that we would not have expected to die in the next year, and to estimate the impact of the lockdown and changes in economic circumstances on mortality.

These estimates that SAGE used, along with statistics from other government departments, gave initial insight into the pandemic, and potential excess deaths, and were important for informing decisions at the time. However, COVID-19 is new, it’s something that everyone is still learning about and over the last few months the ONS’ work has been crucial in understanding the evolving nature of the pandemic’s impact on society.

What’s next?

A full analysis of the impact of COVID-19 on mortality will only be possible in many months or even years’ time when longer-term effects and additional data, both death registrations and other sources, can be considered.

But in the meantime, we will continue to update and publish new analyses on COVID-19 mortality in order to continue building up the picture of the pandemic.

Next week we intend to update our ethnicity work, also including breakdowns on religion and disability. This will give an even clearer insight into how those groups have been affected.

Ben Humberstone, Deputy Director for Health Analysis and Life Events