How is it possible that the number of deaths is now so low?

Figcaption How Is It Possible That The Number Of Deaths Is Now So Low
Posted at: Author: Rain TV UK

I n the week ending 19 March, 10,311 deaths were registered in England and Wales. Every one of these events is a cause of sadness and mourning. But, from a statistical perspective, this is a remarkably low total, the lowest since 2014 for that week. Furthermore, 740 registrations had Covid-19 as the underlying cause and the remaining non-Covid deaths are running below every year in the past decade. So why are there so few deaths?

There are many potential reasons. First, the weather is fairly mild. Second, the current restrictions have the collateral benefit of far fewer road casualties – last year’s lockdown saved more than 20 deaths a week on the roads. Third, and far more important, is Public Health England’s report that flu hospitalisations are near to nil. Flu is much less infectious than Sars-CoV-2. The distance we are all keeping from each other means, like countries in the southern hemisphere during their respective winters, we appear to have skipped our flu season entirely. That has saved many thousands of lives.

Fourth, there is fortunately no sign yet of increased deaths from, say, cancer, despite disruptions to hospital services and treatments over the past year.

Finally, there is the sad fact that some vulnerable people who died in the first wave would otherwise have survived another year and be dying now. This “mortality displacement”, also known by the graphic but unfortunate term “harvesting”, often shows when a period of extreme heat or cold is followed by a dip in mortality rates.

A year ago, at the start of the first wave, one of us (David Spiegelhalter) was quoted as saying that “many people who die of Covid would have died anyway within a short period”, while others estimated this proportion could be more than half. We were wrong: the true figure looks more like his later estimate of 5% to 15%.

As the pandemic virus comes under some control, this lower level of mortal risk is revealing itself. Of the deaths that we are not seeing, many are the shadows of those who were taken early.

David Spiegelhalter is chair of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at Cambridge. Anthony Masters is statistical ambassador for the Royal Statistical Society

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