Covid death rates fell over Christmas as ministers debated new restrictions

·4-min read
Experts said that it was now clear that the UK will not experience the thousands of daily deaths modelling scenarios showed - Andy Rain/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Experts said that it was now clear that the UK will not experience the thousands of daily deaths modelling scenarios showed - Andy Rain/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Death rates from Covid fell significantly in December while the Government was deciding whether to bring in new restrictions, the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have revealed.

Monthly mortality data show that there were 56.3 Covid deaths per 100,000 in England last month with the virus on the death certificate, compared to 69.3 per 100,000 in November.

Separate ONS and King’s College London infection data also reveal that cases are declining in most areas of Britain.

Experts said that it was now clear that the UK would not experience the thousands of daily deaths modelling scenarios showed, and said lessons must be learned from how the omicron variant was dealt with before Christmas.

Prof James Naismith, the director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute at the University of Oxford, said: “Given the immunity in the population from vaccination and the progress of the booster, we were very unlikely to see deaths spiral to thousands a day. It was not impossible, but the low probability should have been more clearly communicated.

“Partial travel bans once a variant of concern is detected serve only PR purposes. It was disappointing to see them imposed and supported by some scientists in the face of the evidence of their lack of utility. Modelling is vital, but can only ever present a range of future scenarios. The science community needs to find a better way to explain this.”

The ONS data show that Covid fell to fourth place in the leading causes of death in England, from third last November. The death rate was only slightly higher than the five-year average (2015 to 2019) for flu and pneumonia.

In Wales, the Covid death rate was significantly below the five-year average for flu and pneumonia, at 59.3 cases per 100,000 compared to 73.2 per 100,000. Of the 49,428 deaths registered in December, 5.4 per cent were due to Covid compared to 6.6 per cent in November.

Deaths from the omicron surge are unlikely to show in the December data, so numbers will be added in the coming weeks.

The provisional figures show that Covid was the leading cause of death in England last year, with 113.8 deaths per 100,000 people. The second leading cause was dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, with 102.6 deaths per 100,000 people. In Wales, ischaemic heart disease was the leading cause of death, slightly higher than Covid.

The latest infection data from the ONS show that, in the week ending Jan 15, the percentage of people testing positive for coronavirus has decreased across all regions except for the North East and South West, where trends are uncertain.

Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister, told a Welsh government briefing that the country had passed the peak of omicron infections, saying: “After many difficult and worrying weeks, I’m very pleased to say the situation has improved significantly.”

Data from the King’s College London Zoe Covid study show that the omicron wave is falling fast, although there has been a new uptick detected in children, associated with the return of schools.

The Zoe team estimated that there were 144,527 new daily symptomatic Covid cases in Britain up to Jan 17, a decrease of 21 per cent from 183,364 the previous week, and the 'R' value is estimated to be about 0.9.

New daily symptomatic cases have seen a rise in the under-18s, but cases in the over-75s have fallen back to very low levels following a number of omicron outbreaks in care homes.

Prof Tim Spector, the lead scientist on the Zoe Covid Study app, said: “It’s great to see cases falling rapidly and new cold-like symptoms are now again slightly more likely to just be a cold and not Covid. The data is already showing an uptick in symptomatic cases in children due to the back to school effect.

“With cases still high and restrictions being lifted, we’ll just have to hope that people remain sensible, their households are triple vaccinated and, regardless of official advice, that everyone knows to isolate and self-test when experiencing cold-like symptoms.”

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