Two startlingly different figures for what is ostensibly the same count have been released within days of each other: the government reported 150,000 Covid-19 deaths days before the UK’s lead statistical agency reported a death toll of more than 175,000.
The difference between the two figures is stark but easily explained: the government’s figures count only those deaths that are known to have occurred within 28 days of a positive coronavirus test. The Office for National Statistics, on the other hand, counts all deaths where the virus was mentioned on the death certificate.
But regardless of the counting method, the numbers represent individual human tragedies. So, what do we know about the 175,000 people whose deaths have been recorded to date?
The pandemic has taken the greatest toll on elderly people: across the UK since the start of the pandemic more than seven in 10 registered deaths have been among those aged 75 or older. Meanwhile, deaths among those aged 44 or younger made up under 2% of the total.
Nevertheless, the proportion of deaths made up by older people has changed over the course of the pandemic.
During the first wave, which continued for most of 2020, three-quarters of all deaths were among those aged 75+. In subsequent waves this fell, in part thanks to vaccinations, decreasing to 59% of all deaths during the period where Delta dominated.
Vaccination rates are highest among elderly people, NHS figures show.
ONS analysis covering the first 10 months of 2021 shows risk of death involving Covid-19 to be 28 times higher among unvaccinated people than among the vaccinated population.
The data shows that deaths involving Covid-19 have been consistently lower for vaccinated people, which the ONS defines as people who received their vaccine at least 21 days beforehand, compared with unvaccinated people – a trend apparent across all age groups.
Throughout the whole of the pandemic, gender disparities regarding coronavirus deaths have been evident. According to ONS figures regarding coronavirus deaths registered up to 31 December 2021, men made up 94,433 – or 54% – of total coronavirus deaths within this period, despite the fact that men make up only 49% of England and Wales’ population.
Although these percentages remained roughly similar throughout the pandemic, there were variations of this disproportionality between the different waves.
Within the Delta wave, 58% of deaths were of males, whereas the lowest proportion of male deaths took place within the Alpha wave – at 53%. The theories as why this is include differences in lockdown behaviour between the sexes, men being more likely to drink, smoke and experience obesity; and differing immune responses.
The spread of Covid deaths has not been even across the country: the crude death rate remains highest in the north-west, driven by the high number of deaths in 2020 after high case rates in the UK in the early part of the pandemic.
Across the entire pandemic the virus has claimed 23,659 lives in the region, equivalent to a crude death rate of 321 per 100,000 population, higher than any other both by absolute numbers and rate.
Among the four nations of the UK, Wales recorded the highest death rate of 291 coronavirus deaths per 100,000 population, driven partly by the fact that it has the highest proportion of people aged 65-plus of the UK’s constituency countries. The UK-wide crude death rates stood at 262 deaths per 100,000 registered deaths at the end of 2021.
Deaths by occupation
At the start of the pandemic – with essential workers going out to work while anyone who could stayed home – research focused on the link between occupation and Covid mortality risk.
The ONS last published data on this topic in early 2021, analysing close to 8,000 deaths involving coronavirus within the working age population across England and Wales to the end of 2020, showing that those working in close proximity to others had higher death rates.
Again, men were more exposed, making up nearly two-thirds of these deaths, with male workers in the care and leisure sectors and other public-facing jobs experiencing higher death rates. Female death rates were highest among machine operatives, those in the caring and leisure industries, and other customer-facing occupations.
Among healthcare occupations, nurses had statistically significantly higher rates of death involving Covid-19 when compared with those of the same age and sex in the population.
Deaths by ethnicity
The ONS conducted provisional analysis, looking at deaths involving coronavirus between 2 March and 15 May 2020. The analysis found that, when taking into account size and age variations across different ethnicities, the mortality rate was highest among black men.
After adjusting for region, population density and other sociodemographic characteristics, the raised risk of death for black people was two times greater for men and 1.4 times greater for women compared with white people.
The analysis was updated in May 2021 and found that the mortality risk for black people relative to white British people was reduced in the second wave. Nevertheless, “most black and South Asian groups remained at higher risk than white British people in the second wave even after adjustments,” according to the ONS.
Although the ONS data does not cover the whole of the pandemic, there remains evidence that minority ethnic people were at a higher risk of contracting and dying from Covid-19 compared with their white counterparts.