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A year on from lockdown, watershed moment brings some relief but COVID is far from over

Written by on 23/03/2021

In a year marked by awful death data and miserable milestones, it is a relief finally to be able to reflect on a more positive watershed moment.

One way of gauging whether a country is facing a pandemic wave of mortality is to look at the number of people dying and to compare it to the historical average.

If the weekly death figure is above the historical average then that signifies a period of “excess death”.

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The number of people dying in England and Wales has fallen below the five-year average for the first time since September.

Such metrics are not definitive – there are many different ways of measuring these things, each with their own pros and cons – but when it comes to COVID-19 this is one of the statistics that seems to hold up better than others.

And the good news is that after a long period of week-after-week excess deaths, the number of people dying in the UK in the week to 12 March has dropped back below the historical average.

The second wave, at least as measured in excess death terms, is now over.

Yet this good news is of course tinged by sadness. Now that deaths are down at typical levels for this time of year, we can reflect on how many people have lost their lives as a direct and indirect result of this pandemic.

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Marking a year since the first coronavirus lockdown restrictions on 23 March 2020.

When you add up those excess deaths from both the first and second wave and subtract the below-average deaths numbers inbetween, you get a grand total of just over 123,000 across the UK as a whole.

It is a depressing number, and by some yardsticks it underplays the impact of COVID-19, since there are other statistics, based on the number of deaths where the virus was mentioned on the certificate, which now put the total just short of 150,000.

People queue outside the Ulster Hospital Covid-19 vaccination centre in Belfast
Image: The second wave in the UK, at least as measured in excess death terms, is now over

Why the difference? Primarily because deaths from other causes, notably flu and non-COVID, were lower during this period than in previous years.

One interpretation is that some of those who have died from the coronavirus might otherwise have died in the same period from something else. But this is scant consolation.

Weekly deaths from all causes: UK. Sky graph
Image: UK weekly deaths from all causes

How does the UK’s death toll compare with other countries? The question is worth asking because for a long time some have claimed that the UK faced the worst mortality outcome in the world, or maybe the developed world. But as time has gone on and as more numbers have come in, other countries have sadly seen worse mortality outcomes.

Much depends on which measure one looks at.

If you look at those official COVID death tolls, the ones reported each day by the government, the UK has the sixth biggest death toll in the world, as a proportion of the population.

Official Covid 19 death tolls by country CORRECT spelling. Sky graph
Image: Official COVID-19 death tolls by country

Only some Eastern European countries and Belgium suffered more losses.

However, this measure may somewhat overstate the UK’s comparative toll since there are big question marks about the data in some countries, especially emerging and developing nations.

So if instead one looks at excess deaths, the UK has the 16th highest death toll in the world, slightly more than Slovenia but slightly fewer than the Czech Republic.

Ed Conway charts on International excess deaths. Sky graphic
Image: Official COVID-19 excess death numbers by country

However, it’s important to note a few things when doing such comparisons. The first is that while the UK may not be in the top 10, it is nonetheless facing far, far more fatalities than many other countries of comparable size and development.

Second, this story isn’t over yet.

While deaths have dropped down below average levels in the UK, they are rising elsewhere around the world. Brazil is facing a significant leap in fatalities, while cases of COVID are increasing in many parts of Europe.

Eastern Europe, which managed to avoid much of the first wave last spring, has suffered more than most parts of the world from the waves of infection during the autumn, winter and spring.

And while many hope the relative strength of the UK’s vaccination programme will mean it can avoid a third wave, policymakers remain nervous about the risks posed by infections imported from elsewhere around the world.

It is therefore with an understandable mix of emotions that we should mark this moment. A year on from the start of lockdown, but the second wave of excess deaths is now over.

Lockdown: One Year On is a special programme marking the anniversary of the first national lockdown on Sky News at 7pm tonight.

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