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2020 had highest number of deaths in England and Wales since the First World War

Connor Parker
·5-min read
There are now more patients in hospital with COVID-19 than during the peak of the first wave. (Getty)
There are now more patients in hospital with COVID-19 than during the peak of the first wave. (Getty)

England and Wales recorded more deaths in 2020 than any year since the end of the First World War, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The two countries saw more than 604,000 deaths last year as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, amounting to roughly 73,000 more than the five-year average, according to senior statistician Nick Stripe.

The total number of deaths from COVID-19 in all four nations of the UK, recorded by the government as of Wednesday, now stands at 77,346.

Deaths register in England and Wales since 1900. (Nick Stripe)
Deaths register in England and Wales since 1900. (Nick Stripe)

Separate figures published by the UK’s statistics agencies for deaths where COVID-19 has been mentioned on the death certificate estimate there could have been as many as 93,000 deaths involving COVID-19 in the UK.

The last time England and Wales reported more than 600,000 deaths in a single year was more than a century ago in 1918, when the First World War came to an end and as the Spanish flu pandemic took hold.

The figures for 2020 were 14% higher than the five-year average.

Excess deaths in 2020 (orange line) compared to the five-year average (black line). (Nick Stripe)
Excess deaths in 2020 (orange line) compared to the five-year average (black line). (Nick Stripe)

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Although it is unlikely 2021 will see equally high figures, the start of the year is set to be significantly above average.

All four nations of the UK have returned to lockdown and the number of people in hospital with coronavirus is at record highs.

The UK reported 1,041 new deaths on Wednesday, the highest number since the peak of the first wave on 21 April which was the deadliest day in the pandemic so far with 1,224 deaths.

Figures from NHS Test and Trace showed 311,372 tested positive for COVID-19 during the festive period between 24 December and 30 December.

Excess deaths every year when account fro population differences. (Nick Stripe)
Excess deaths every year when account fro population differences. (Nick Stripe)

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This is the highest number ever recorded by NHS Test and Trace and was a 24% increase from the previous week – despite a 29% fall in the number of tests taken.

Deaths are expected to continue to rise as the effects of Christmas and New Year mixing, and the growth of the new more infectious variant begin to impact the number of hospital admissions.

ONS statistician Stripe said on Twitter: “Looking at excess deaths, we began the year with death levels below the 5-year average.

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“This was followed by a huge peak in the spring, driven by COVID, until lockdown one took effect.”

He said the figures indicated that the number of excess deaths, adjusted for population, would be at the highest level since 1940.

Stripe added: “Even with measures taken to limit COVID spread, 2020 will still top 1951, the year of a major flu epidemic.

“Without all our efforts, 2020 could have been much worse.”

Last January saw deaths below the five-year average, but numbers shot up in the spring until the first lockdown took effect.

As COVID numbers remained low over summer, excess deaths remained around normal but have been creeping up since the end of September followed by a sharp uptick in December.

Hopes for the end of the pandemic remain high with the government committing to vaccinated around 13 million people by the middle of February.

If the government achieves the goal it will mean all of the most at-risk people from COVID-19, as well as all health and care workers, will have been vaccinated against coronavirus.

Behind the numbers

The overall population of England and Wales has increased by more than 60% since 1915 – from 35 million to around 60 million today – which would naturally feed into any increase in total deaths.

And while deaths gradually increased through the five decades after the 1920s, this trend was reversed in the mid-1970s and consistently declined until the beginning of the last decade when it started going in the wrong direction again.

According to a government report published in 2018, improvements in life expectancy started to slow down in males and females in 2011. This was most pronounced in more deprived areas - particularly among women where life expectancy among the poorest actually decreased.

There were also notable increases in deaths in the winters of 2014/15, 2016/17 and 2017/18, which was linked to a specific type of flu that targeted the elderly.

More widely, an ageing population and a slowdown in fewer people dying from heart disease and stroke is likely to have an impact in recent years.

The report concluded that the government should be stepping up efforts to reduce risk factors such as smoking, high blood pressure and obesity.

According to the ONS, one of the most important trends of the 20th century has been what it describes as the “dramatic” decline in the number of people dying from infectious diseases, with multiple causes of death - such as polio and measles - being virtually wiped out over time by medical advancements such as mass vaccination programmes.

Other recent changes have seen a marked increase in the number of people dying in car accidents prior to the mid-1980s – when the wearing of seat belts was made compulsory.

For young people, the past 30 years has seen drug misuse and suicide emerge as the leading causes of death – particularly for males.

Last year, the leading cause of death across the whole population was dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, accounting for 12.7% of all deaths registered.