Is the Second Wave Overstated?

Sarah Knapton, Science Editor of the Telegraph, has produced an in-depth analysis of the statistics around the ‘second wave’. It shows that misunderstood and misrepresented data are leading people to exaggerate the scale of the winter resurgence compared to the first peak last year.

On January 13th, Dr Yvonne Doyle, the Medical Director at Public Health England (PHE), issued an alarming statement claiming that Britain had reported the highest number of coronavirus deaths on a single day since the pandemic began.

She also alleged that there have now been more deaths in the second wave than the first.

Both these statements were “technically” true. On that day, 1,564 people were added to official mortality figures, the highest number ever, while the 44,198 “second wave” coronavirus deaths passed the 40,563 recorded up to August 31st.

Yet dig a little deeper and the narrative that the second wave is more deadly than the first begins to unravel.

I make an early caveat here that I firmly believe we are having a deadly second wave, and thousands more people are dying than would be expected ordinarily at this time of year. But it is not the tens of thousands more PHE would have you believe.

According to some figures, the second wave is five times less deadly than the first wave. This is in spite of the fact we have a new variant which is between 50% and 74% more infectious.

To get a real feel for how the waves compare, it is necessary to look at excess deaths rather than crude reported deaths.

According to the Continuous Mortality Investigation (CMI), set up by the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, there have been 72,900 excess deaths from the start of the pandemic in March to the end of December.

Some 60,800 of those occurred in the first wave, but just 12,100 in the second. It means that, unlike the first wave, huge numbers of people included in the coronavirus death figures would have been expected to die of other causes in the past few months.

Look at Office for National Statistics (ONS) graphs showing deaths over time and this becomes startlingly clear. While there is a mountainous peak in April as deaths soared over the average, now we are trending a little above the five-year average line. On some days towards the end of December, we were actually below it.

Dr Jason Oke, of the Centre of Evidence Based Medicine (CEBM) at the University of Oxford, said it was difficult to understand the pandemic from the graphs published on the Government’s daily coronavirus dashboard.

While the “deaths within 28 days” graph appears to show that the second wave is as bad as the first, the “weekly deaths by date registered” shows no such correlation.

“If you look at the 28-day graph and the hospital data you could well believe it is as bad as the first wave,” Dr Oke said. “The first graph suggests we are now at the same place as the first wave (and due for worse) whereas the second graph tells a different story – half the first wave currently and no increase in December.”

The CMI also reported that during week 53, from December 28th to January 3rd, there were 19% fewer deaths registered in England and Wales than would have been expected if Standardised Mortality Rates had been the same as in week one of 2020.

These December figures will undoubtedly rise as more deaths are registered, and have suffered from the Christmas and New Year holidays when fewer deaths than normal were recorded. But they are not likely to rise so significantly as to take us back to the extraordinary excess deaths of April.

This week’s Monthly Mortality Analysis from the ONS also makes this point very well. The report states: “Although mortality rates due to COVID-19 have increased between October and December 2020, these remain significantly lower than in April 2020.”

In fact, in England, age-standardised mortality rates (ASMR) were 62.5% lower in December than April. They have fallen from 623.2 per 100,000 people in April to 233.6 per 100,000 in December.

The same is true in Wales, although to a lesser extent. In April the ASMR was 495.1 deaths per 100,000 people, and it was 374.4 per 100,000 in December, a 24.4% decrease.

Worth reading in full.

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