In Depth

Unexplained surge in non-Covid deaths triggers calls for probe

Almost 9,300 more people than usual have died from conditions unrelated to coronavirus since July

Experts are demanding an urgent inquiry into whether thousands of non-Covid deaths since July could have been prevented.

Latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show a “devastating surge” of around 20,800 additional deaths in England and Wales in the past four months compared with the average for the same period in the five years up to 2019, said Metro. Of these extra fatalities, referred to as “excess deaths”, 45% were not related to coronavirus. 

Although a higher mortality rate is expected at this time of year, concerns are growing that NHS delays during the pandemic have left patients “with previously treatable conditions suffering illnesses that have now become fatal”, said The Telegraph.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak last month committed £5.9bn of extra NHS funding to help tackle the healthcare crisis. But almost six million people in England remain on waiting lists for elective procedures, “the highest number ever recorded”, the paper continued.

And ambulance wait times are also “at a record high”. NHS records show that heart attack patients are now waiting an average of 53 minutes for help to arrive. The NHS target time to reach a suspected stroke or heart attack victim is 18 minutes.

Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of applied statistics at The Open University, said that the recent surge in excess deaths included “considerable excess numbers of deaths in people’s own homes, compared to the 2015-19 average”.

“In the most recent week, there were 891 excess deaths at home that did not involve Covid-19 – that’s about 127 a day,” he told The Telegraph.

The Times reported last week that latest figures show that “private homes are the only setting where deaths in England and Wales have been consistently above the pre-pandemic average every month from January 2020 to June 2021”.

ONS data suggests these extra deaths in homes were driven by conditions including heart disease and dementia, which were the leading causes of deaths in England and Wales in September, followed by Covid-19.

Sarah Caul, head of mortality analysis at the non-ministerial department, said that the pandemic “appears to have had an indirect effect” on rates of deaths outside of healthcare settings.

“This could be because of a combination of factors which may include health service disruption, people choosing to stay away from healthcare settings or terminally ill people staying at home rather than being admitted to other settings for end-of-life care,” Caul added. 

“More investigation is needed to understand this.”

Her call for a probe into above-average death rates has been echoed Professor Carl Heneghan, an expert in evidence-based medicine at Oxford University.

“If you look at where the excess is happening, it’s in conditions like ischaemic heart disease, cirrhosis of the liver and diabetes, all which are potentially reversible,” he told The Telegraph. “This goes beyond just looking at the raw numbers and death certificates.

“We need to go back and see if these deaths have any preventable causes.” 

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