There is a surge in weekly deaths in the UK that only Covid-19 can explain

Paramedics outside the Excel Center.
Paramedics outside the Excel Center.
Image: REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
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The UK today reported the highest number of weekly deaths since comparable records began in 2005. According to the Office for National Statistics, some 16,387 deaths were registered in the week ending April 3, which is 6,082 more than the five-year average.

More than 20% of the total deaths were linked to Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, which was mentioned on the death certificate of 3,475 people during this period. The UK government’s guidance says that doctors can list it as a direct or underlying cause of death without diagnostic proof, relying on their clinical judgement and experience.

The ONS has received reports of an additional 2,112 deaths linked to Covid-19 that took place sometime before April 3, but were registered later and therefore not included in today’s data. On top of that, 2,106 of the total 16,387 deaths were related to respiratory disease, some of which might overlap with Covid-19 deaths. The ONS recognizes the difficulty of separating out these two categories, and cautions that there is double counting.

To be sure, many who passed away would have succumbed to other ailments entirely or in part. Professor Neil Ferguson, the lead modeler of the influential Imperial College study that reportedly led the government to adopt stricter physical distancing measures, previously suggested that up to two thirds—particularly the elderly—would have died anyway within a short period of time. (More than half of the latest weekly deaths were people aged 80 and above.)

Beyond the cause of death, the timing of statistics makes trying to work out how many British people have been killed by Covid-19 more difficult. For example, the ONS data looks at registered deaths, and those tend to lag behind the UK government’s more immediate daily figures that are based on information that hospitals provide.

On April 4, the government said that 708 people who tested positive for Covid-19 died in the UK in the previous 24 hours, the vast majority of whom had underlying medical conditions. That number today stands at 778, one sign that the ONS’s figures might climb further in next week’s release, and possibly beyond.

Correction: An earlier version of this article attributed deaths to the novel coronavirus, instead of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.