Flu deaths fall as ONS says many who were vulnerable may have died in first Covid wave

Sarah Knapton
·3-min read
The ONS said deaths that would have been likely to happen throughout the rest of the year due to influenza and pneumonia may have occurred earlier because of coronavirus - Justin Setterfield/Getty Images Europe
The ONS said deaths that would have been likely to happen throughout the rest of the year due to influenza and pneumonia may have occurred earlier because of coronavirus - Justin Setterfield/Getty Images Europe
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The death rate from flu and pneumonia fell by nearly one third in September, with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) saying people who would have ordinarily died around now may instead have lost their lives in the first coronavirus wave.

New monthly mortality figures from the ONS show that there were 2,535 fewer overall deaths in September compared to the five-year average – 34,400 compared to 36,935.

Although deaths in September will rise because of the lag in registrations, the overall death rate is currently tracking a little below what would be expected for this time of year. 

The number of coronavirus deaths continues to rise, with 690 registered in September, accounting for 1.7 per cent of deaths in England, making the virus the 19th most common cause of death. The leading cause of death was dementia and Alzheimer's disease, accounting for more than one in 10 deaths.

The ONS said the biggest change in mortality rates had been in flu and pneumonia, which are far lower than the five-year average. Around 1,500 people would be usually expected to die of flu and pneumonia in September, but that has fallen to 1,132 – a drop of 27.7 per cent in mortality rates once taking into account population changes.

A spokesman for the ONS said: "Deaths that would have likely occurred throughout the rest of 2020 due to influenza and pneumonia may have occurred earlier, during April and May 2020, due to the Covid-19 pandemic."

Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of applied statistics at the Open University, said: "The biggest difference is in deaths whose underlying cause was influenza and pneumonia combined. That's a really big drop. 

"The ONS statisticians suggest that this may have happened because deaths from influenza and pneumonia that would have occurred throughout 2020 may have occurred earlier, in April or May, at the height of the pandemic. 

"That's certainly a possibility, but maybe it's not the only one. Most deaths from influenza and pneumonia are in older people, who may be more likely to be careful with social distancing, mask-wearing and other measures intended to reduce the risk of Covid-19. 

"The same measures are also likely to reduce the risk of influenza, and so may have contributed to the lower death rate from this cause."

The coronavirus mortality rate in September was significantly below the same point in the first wave, with a death rate of 12.6 per 100,000 compared with 33.8 per 100,000 in March. The Covid mortality rate at the peak of the first wave in April was 623 deaths per 100,000. 

The overall death rate in September rose slightly, from 839.8 deaths per 100,000 people to 882.3 deaths per 100,000, but there was a similar rise between 2018 and 2019. The death rate for August and July was slightly lower than the rate for the same months in 2019.

The total of deaths registered in September – which includes some that occurred earlier than September but were registered later – was 39,827 deaths, 2,568 more than the five-year average.

CLARIFICATION:  We wish to clarify that the number of deaths for September will be revised upward in subsequent data releases, albeit that it cannot be known by how much. The article has been updated to make this clear.