Coronavirus 2020 review: how many people died from Covid-19 in England this year?

The past year was a year like no other, with bad news blurring into more bad news and endless statistics washing over us.

When the coronavirus began to make itself known on British shores back in February, few would have imagined we would be seeing out the year confined to our homes, the virus still raging in our communities and ravaging our NHS. 

Data was everywhere in 2020, and with different figures pouring out from different government sources it has been difficult at times to keep up.

But how many people have really died of coronavirus this year? Which figures should we be paying attention to?

Statistics cannot tell us much about the people we lost in 2020 – but pausing to take stock as we move into a new year can help us understand the scale of what the past nine months have dealt us.

Deaths within 28 days of a positive death

The most timely measure of deaths that has been available this year is of people who have died within 28 days of a positive coronavirus test.

These figures are published daily for every local authority in England.

As of December 30th, 63,298 victims had been recorded this way across the country, or 112.5 per 100,000 people.

Counting deaths based on whether a person has tested positive has at times proved controversial.

In August, Public Health England was forced to remove more than 5,000 people from its official death toll after criticism from the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine prompted a review of its methodology.

Until that point the health body had counted all deaths where someone had tested positive for Covid-19, regardless of how long ago that test was.

The 28-day time limit was then introduced, bringing all four nations of the UK into alignment.

Some still criticise this method, arguing that if somebody tested positive on the 1st of the month and was then hit by a bus and killed on the 28th, they would be inappropriately included in the figures.

The worst affected region in England by this measure is the North West, with 11,756 deaths, or 160.1 per 100,000 of its population.

The South West is at the opposite end of the scale, with 3,347 fatalities –  59.5 per 100,000.

The hardest-hit local authority is Wigan, where 225.8 in every 100,000 people have died.

Deaths where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate

A broader method of deaths is published weekly by the Office for National Statistics.

This counts all cases where Covid-19 was mentioned on a death certificate. 

While not as timely as the data reported directly by hospitals each day, these figures provide a more comprehensive picture of coronavirus mortality.

They could capture suspected cases in care homes, or those who have contracted coronavirus and died weeks later of a complication caused by the disease, such as pneumonia or organ failure, who are no longer captured by the 28-day cut off.

As of December 18th, the ONS had recorded 72,190 deaths in England alone. This counts only those that were registered by Boxing Day.

At a rate of 128.3 per 100,000 people, that was significantly higher than the 28-day measure, despite being almost two weeks behind.

The North West is still the worst affected region, at 179.5 cases per 100,000, but Tameside in Manchester jumps to the top of the local authority rankings, with a rate of 238. 

That means more than one in every 500 people in Tameside died from coronavirus this year.

Excess deaths

Not all victims of the coronavirus pandemic will be killed by the disease itself.

Health experts have warned from the start that efforts to control the infection could indirectly cause deaths in the long term.

This could be because people have stayed away from hospitals and GP surgeries and not had treatment for things such as heart problems or suspected cancer.

Delays that have built up on NHS waiting lists because procedures have been rescheduled or cancelled could also have an impact.

This will be a particular concern if hospitals become overwhelmed during winter, with more people tending to die at this time of year.

For these reasons, ministers leading the public response to the coronavirus crisis have consistently said excess mortality figures will be the most accurate measure of the overall impact.

Excess deaths can be measured by comparing all deaths during 2020 with the five-year average between 2015 and 2019.

Monthly ONS figures, which cover until the end of October, show there were 55,491 extra deaths in England this year compared to the five-year average.

Based on weekly ONS death statistics, the King’s Fund think tank calculated there were 71,000 excess deaths up to December 4th in England and Wales.

This proves that coronavirus deaths have not just occurred among very elderly or sick people who might have been expected to die this year anyway – as some coronavirus sceptics claim.

Who were the victims?

Covid-19 might be the great leveller in that restrictions to control the virus have closed businesses and impacted the social lives of people across the board.

But it has not killed uniformly, with some left more vulnerable depending on their age, occupation, sex or ethnicity.

More than a quarter of Covid-19 deaths in England occurred in care homes – 18,727 in total.

Men have been shown to be at increased risk – 55% of deaths in England and Wales were among men and 45% women.

And older people have been far more impacted than younger – 22% of victims were aged 90 or over, while those aged 70 or over made up 84% of deaths.