Why are so many more people dying than normal?

An NHS staff member walks near NHS London Ambulance Service, on the day of a planned strike, amid a dispute with the government over pay, in London, Britain December 21, 2022. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Experts warn that issues with access to emergency care are contributing to higher than average numbers of deaths (Reuters)

Since June 2022, there have been 30,000 more deaths than expected in England and Wales.

In the last week of December, deaths were 20% higher than the five-year average, a figure described as “almost unbelievable” by one commentator.

Experts warn that multiple factors are behind the high numbers of excess deaths, including the current crisis in the NHS, which is resulting in difficulties in accessing both routine and emergency care.

Watch: NHS waiting lists are a 'national scandal', British Medical Association chairman says

Yahoo News UK explains what’s happening to excess deaths and why:

What exactly are excess deaths? The term refers to the number of deaths above the average over the last five years. The average for 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2021 is used for comparisons with 2022 to avoid the numbers being affected by high numbers of deaths at the start of the COVID pandemic.

Excess deaths in 2022 (Yahoo News UK/Flourish/ONS)
Excess deaths in 2022 (Yahoo News UK/Flourish/ONS)

How many excess deaths are occurring? Excess deaths began to rise significantly in the latter half of 2022, with 30,504 more people dying from June to December 2022 than the previous five-year average – 12% more deaths than expected.

These are the highest numbers since the height of the COVID pandemic. Excess deaths spiked during the COVID waves in 2020 and 2021, but cooled in the first half of 2022 before starting to rise again.

The numbers were especially high at the end of 2022. In the last week of 2022 there were 1,592 excess deaths, resulting in 20% more deaths than expected in total. The week before there were 2,493 excess deaths – meaning 21% more deaths than expected.

LONDON, UK - JANUARY 4: A NHS sign at St. Thomas Hospital in London, United Kingdom on January 4, 2022. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is urged by Doctors' Association UK to recall parliament 'immediately' to discuss 'NHS crisis'. (Photo by Rasid Necati Aslim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Hospitals are under huge pressure with patients facing long waits for ambulances and in A&E (Getty Images)

A number of experts have come forward to highlight the scale of the issue. Torsten Bell, chief executive of the Resolution Foundation, said: “These numbers are so large and traumatising as to be almost unbelievable.”

Why are so many people dying? Experts agree that there are a number of factors at play and that no one reason is driving the high numbers of deaths. However analysts tend to agree that the NHS crisis is playing a key role.

Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, emeritus professor of statistics at the University of Cambridge, said: “Multiple factors will be contributing to this: early flu, COVID, the impact of disrupted care in the pandemic, and the acute crisis in the NHS.”

The amount of time patients are waiting for ambulances to respond to serious conditions such as heart attacks and strokes has soared (Yahoo News UK/Flourish/NHS England)
The amount of time patients are waiting for ambulances to respond to serious conditions such as heart attacks and strokes has soared (Yahoo News UK/Flourish/NHS England)

How much of this is down to the NHS crisis? The Royal College of Emergency Medicine estimates that somewhere between 300 and 500 people are dying each week as a result of delays and problems with urgent and emergency care. NHS England says it does not accept this figure. Dr Spiegelhalter said the NHS crisis is contributing, but it was ‘not possible to say by how much’.

What about COVID? Very few of the excess deaths occurring recently have been directly due to COVID. However various studies show that catching COVID increases your risk of heart attack and strokes in the aftermath of the illness, and experts say this has driven up the numbers of deaths. Doctors also warn that some patients didn’t come in for tests during lockdown, potentially preventing early diagnosis of serious issues.