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Covid-19 Excess Mortality Analysis

31 March 2021

Back in February, the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that his government would take a "data not dates" approach to leaving lockdown, producing a “cautious but irreversible” roadmap to reopening the economy.

So, is this approach working?

As temperatures rise and families meet again for the Easter Bank Holiday, we asked our data analytics division to explore one of the most important datasets informing the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) – excess mortality.

Understanding ONS Mortality

The Office of National Statistics regularly publish open data on weekly deaths registered in the UK. This dataset goes back a number of years and can be quickly broken down by a number of important dimensions including age, sex and region.

Medical professionals and statisticians refer to these figures as mortality tables and information contained within the tables is used for a wide range of purposes in healthcare, governance, insurance and many other sectors.

Overall Mortality by Week

To visualise overall mortality, we asked our team of data analysts to plot publicly available ONS data by week comparing information from 2015 to 2021 over time.

We can make three key observations from this graph:

  1. UK Mortality follows a predictable pattern. Typically, we record around 10,000 weekly deaths a week with seasonal peaks in winter.
  2. 2020 (red) saw mortality rise dramatically, exceeding 20,000 weekly deaths in the first wave and rising above the historical trend from Autumn onwards.
  3. 2021 (green) began with high mortality but has sharply fallen and is now below the historic trend for the previous five years.

This is positive news as it demonstrates that, for the latest weekly data, there are now fewer weekly deaths that at any point in the past 5 years. This will have been noted by SAGE as important data to proceed with lockdown easing.

So, what else can we observe from the ONS data?

Excess Mortality by Age

Another important feature of lockdown easing is the rollout of the vaccine programme which now covers over 50% of UK adults and has proceeded by age to ensure that those at highest risk of death due to Covid19 receive protection first. 

To see the impact of the vaccine programme, we can look at Excess Mortality. This refers to the number of deaths over and above the expected trend and is a metric widely used by public health professionals and SAGE epidemiologists.

To visualise this, our analysts compared the figures for 2021 with the worst previous year:

Covid Mortality by Age

Again, we can draw some important observations:

  1. The third wave of the crisis has resulted in a higher-than-expected number of deaths across UK age groups
  2. Excess mortality has fallen in recent weeks for all age groups and has fallen most rapidly for older age groups prioritised by for Covid19 vaccines.
  3. The youngest age groups appear to be largely unaffected by Covid19

As above, each of these observations are a cause for cautious optimism. Excess Mortality is now falling for each age groups. Furthermore, we see that those most likely to have received a vaccine have seen the largest drop in deaths relative to historic trend.

So, what else can we see from the data?

Excess Mortality by Region

Some commentators have suggested that regional variations will be an important policymaking factor as the current lockdown eases.

Historically, the government has implemented both local lockdown measures and a tier system to reflect regional variations. So does the ONS data confirm that excess mortality remains higher in some areas than others?

Covid Mortality by Region

From this data, we can see:

  1. All regions of England and Wales are now reporting fewer deaths each week compared to the historical worst-case trend.
  2. Some of the worst affected areas at the start of the year (London, Wales, South East) have seen the largest overall fall in excess mortality.
  3. Regional variance could be a diminishing factor over time.

While it’s too early to say for sure whether the Tier system will re-emerge at a later date, the above data does appear to suggest that the nationwide lockdown approach combined with a swift vaccine rollout has proved successful to date. 

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