I Have been taken to task for ‘spreading misinformation’ because in this column on the 5th of September 2020 I stated that UK deaths in the preceding 12 months had been by no means exceptional.
A critic however, has provided figures clearly showing a 15% increase in deaths in 2020 over the average of the preceding three years.
First, the criticism is based on figures for the whole of 2020, where my column was written at the beginning of September before the surge in infections and deaths consequent upon the advent of the new variant. Only two weeks after publication of the column, the Secretary of State told me from the despatch box, on the record, that average deaths were consistent with the long-term average. I consider my column to be a fair analysis at the time it was written.
Furthermore, when I wrote the column I was considering a much broader sweep of recent history than my critic.
From early in the pandemic I have complained about how we are manipulated by the ways in which statistics are presented, especially without context.
Most recently I have been appalled by the way that last year’s figures for deaths have been presented with attendant hyperbole.
On the morning of their release the BBC R4 Today Programme trumpeted that they were the worst since WW2. The statistician in attendance said that this was a quite illegitimate comparison given the number of profound changes since then, not least the vast increase in population. Nevertheless, the BBC persisted with the characterisation.
Likewise, The Guardian ran with a headline on the 12 January 2021 that “2020 was deadliest year in a century in England and Wales.” Such a sensationalist headline looking at deaths recorded in a calendar year did not account for the size or composition of the population.
A useful measure for understanding deaths is the Age-Standardised Mortality Rate (ASMRs). ASMRs take into consideration both the population size and age-structure allowing comparisons over time. The ONS notes that the provisional ASMR in 2020 for England and Wales was 1043.5 deaths per 100,000 population which was around 8% higher than the five-year average. Since 2001 the ASMR has decreased annually but an increase was seen in 2019 and 2020. It is granted that the ASMR was higher in 2020 than recent years but it was surpassed in 2008 (1,084.2), 2007 (1,085.1), 2006 (1,099.1), 2005 (1,137.6), 2004 (1,155.4), 2003 (1,224.8), 2002 (1,225.5) and 2001 (1,229.8).
Another way of assessing the number of deaths in the UK is the Crude Death Rate (deaths per 1,000 population). Based on ONS’s monthly deaths spreadsheet and population projections for 2020 a provisional crude death rate for England and Wales can be calculated at 10.1 deaths per 1,000 population, compared with 8.9 in 2019. The ONS’ Annual data: Deaths (numbers and rates: total, infant, neonatal) shows that the crude death rate in England and Wales was higher than 2020 when records began in 1953 (11.4 deaths per 1000 population) until 2003 (10.2 deaths per 1,000 population) in every single year.
There is little doubt that the UK had a greater number of deaths in 2020 than in the preceding decade. However, it is far from exceptional. Under the Age-Standardised Mortality Rate (ASMR) measure the rate of mortality was higher in every year prior to 2008. Likewise, under the crude mortality rate every year preceding 2003 saw a higher mortality rate than 2020.
In any event, given that my principal complaint is that lockdown is a failed policy: It comes at an astronomic economic and social cost. So, the more dramatically one presents the death rate, the more its abject failure is manifest.
Scientists and politicians ought to be able to dispute the interpretation of data sensibly and without rancour or name-calling.