Excess deaths in the UK are at their highest since WWII - here's what that means

Excess deaths in the UK have risen to their highest level since 1940, marking the biggest increase since World War Two.

There were almost 85,000 more fatalities in 2020 than expected - amounting to a total figure of 697,000 deaths.

This represents a rise of 14 per cent, marking the highest increase in excess deaths for over 75 years.

What are 'excess' deaths?

Excess deaths are a measure of how many more people are dying than would be reasonably expected, based on data for the years preceding.

It's no surprise, then, that there was an unexpected rise in deaths in the UK in 2020, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. The same kind of spike occurred during World War Two, as a result of war-related civilian deaths.

When the size and age of the population is taken into account (a measure known as age-standardised mortality) 2020's death rate was the worst since the 2000s.

Age-standardised mortality is a measure that determines how much the spike in excess deaths affected the average chance of dying in the UK, and helps put the excess deaths figure into context.

'Mistakes have been made'

The data on deaths only ran up to November 2020, meaning the impact of deaths in December have not been accounted for, but it does show that the death rate in the UK was the highest in England since 2008 in November.

Chief executive of the King's Fund, Richard Murray, said the picture on deaths was anticipated to get worse after a surge in recent coronavirus infections.

"The UK has one of the highest rates of excess deaths in the world, with more excess deaths per million people than most other European countries or the US," he told the BBC.

"It will take a public inquiry to determine exactly what went wrong, but mistakes have been made.

"In a pandemic, mistakes cost lives. Decisions to enter lockdown have consistently come late, with the government failing to learn from past mistakes or the experiences of other countries.

"The promised 'protective ring' around social care in the first wave was slow to materialise and often inadequate, a contributing factor to the excess deaths among care home residents last year.

"Like many countries, the UK was poorly prepared for this type of pandemic."