Excess deaths mystery ‘needs solving urgently’, says ONS

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Clarity on the high number of post-pandemic excess deaths is needed “sooner rather than later”, the Office for National Statistics says. A government analysis of the excess, or unexpected, non-Covid deaths over the past year suggests heart attacks, heart disease, diabetes and liver failure are the main causes.

The report by the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, was released last week following growing pressure from politicians and scientists urging the government to investigate the death rates, which remain higher than normal.

But the reasons why remain unknown. The ONS has now launched a “new cross-UK initiative” to examine the issue of excess deaths and how they are recorded.

It said: “We are aware of the importance of the topic and need for clarity sooner rather than later.”

However, it warned: “This work is not straightforward, but we are confident that we can reach a consensus and deliver improved insight on excess deaths.”

The government report compared registered deaths since 2022 to the number of expected deaths based on the previous five-year average.

It found that for deaths registered in England during 2022, those involving four specific conditions were all over 10 percent higher than expected. These include heart failure – 15 percent higher, cirrhosis and other liver diseases – 14 percent higher, diabetes, 12 percent higher, and heart diseases 11 percent higher.

The report states the government is “taking steps to help reduce excess deaths” and “consider what more can be done to improve the prevention, detection and diagnosis” of heart diseases.

And it says the NHS has a “clear vision” for recovering hospital treatments over the next three years as well as a ‘delivery plan” to improve ambulance times over the next two years.

However it was criticised by scientists who say the government is doing “too little, too late” by failing to address why more people are dying of the four conditions highlighted and also failing to tackle the problem as it emerged last summer.

Professor Carl Heneghan, Director of Oxford University’s Centre for Evidence Based Medicine, urged the government to set up a new ‘central health intelligence agency’ to understand the root cause of the increased deaths. Only by doing this, he argues, can the government put in appropriate measures to reverse the trend.

He said: “While we welcome the government report into excess deaths it is too little too late. The government seems to be moving on this issue inch by inch. It is not good enough for the government to say it will improve waiting times for ambulances over the next two years. With every hour waiting for treatment for a heart attack there is a dramatic increase in death and disability.

“The government needs to understand why people are having more heart attacks and experiencing deaths from heart disease, and do more to prevent more deaths today. We cannot wait until next year or the year after.”

Excluding the pandemic years, 2022 brought the highest excess deaths total since 1951 with levels sometimes reaching that of the pandemic.

From May 2022 to January 2023 there have been 57,000 more deaths registered than the corresponding weeks across the five-year average of 2015-2029. Adjusting for population growth and ageing population, this equates to at least 30,000 excess or “extra” deaths.

Professor Toby Green, co-author of The Covid Consensus, has analysed global excess death figures.

He said: “An urgent investigation is required into what is causing this level of mortality which has reached pandemic levels at some points over the past recent months.”

Esther McVey MP, Conservative MP for Tatton, who has recently written to the Secretary of State for health, Steve Barclay MP to urge him to launch an investigation, said: “People are rightly concerned about this issue.

“We need an urgent and thorough investigation into this matter. We need to understand what is driving these unexpected deaths.”

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