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Sharp rise in UK excess deaths at end of 2022 amid flu surge and NHS crisis

Ambulances waiting at an A&E department (PA Wire)
Ambulances waiting at an A&E department (PA Wire)

The number of deaths registered in the UK in the last week of 2022 was 20 per cent above average amid a surge in flu cases and crisis in NHS emergency care.

Deaths were 37 per cent above average at home, compared with 20 per cent for care homes and 15 per cent higher for hospitals, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Of the 684 excess deaths in private homes in the last week of 2022, only 26 (4 per cent) involved Covid-19.

But the ONS said deaths involving flu and pneumonia “have increased in recent weeks” and accounted for 22 per cent of all deaths registered in England and Wales in the week up to December 30.

This is up from 17 per cent the previous week and 15 per cent at the start of December.

A total of 650,000 fatalities were registered in 2022, one of the largest excess death tolls outside the pandemic in 50 years.

Excess deaths, or extra deaths, are the number of deaths that are above the five-year average for the specific period.

Some senior doctors have attributed the rise in excess deaths to the crisis in the NHS, warning that delays to emergency care are leading to fatalities.

Earlier this month, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM) claimed that the crisis in emergency care could be causing between 300-500 deaths a week. NHS England has said it does not recognise the figure.

Any delay to urgent treatment of between five and 12 hours can significantly increase the risk of a patient dying, according to research published in the British Medical Journal.

NHS figures also show that more than 1,800 ambulances in the capital faced a delay of over 60 minutes when handing over a patient to A&E in the week up to January 1. This is a rise of 29 per cent on the week before.

The target is for handovers to be completed within 15 minutes and ambulance chiefs have warned that handover delays are leading to patients dying.

Dr Veena Raleigh, senior fellow at the health charity The King’s Fund, said there had been a “trend of as-yet-unexplained high numbers of deaths throughout the second half of 2022”, with “many factors” likely to have contributed to the rise, besides flu and Covid-19.

“The numbers of deaths will be affected by a range of other factors including the cold weather spell in December, the availability of services including emergency care, and the continued effects of some patients’ healthcare needs going unmet during the pandemic,” she added.

“As the picture is complex, simplistic explanations about the causes of rising excess deaths since summer 2022, and in particular about the latest data, are unhelpful.

“Detailed data analyses by the ONS, Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, NHS England and other agencies are needed to establish what’s driving the current increase in excess deaths.”