There are thousands more UK deaths than usual and we don’t know why

Jason Arunn Murugesu – The New Scientist Sept 1, 2022

The UK has seen an unexplained surge in deaths in recent months, causing concern among the country’s chief medical officers.

Many suggestions have been put forward for why there have been about 22,500 more deaths between April and August than would normally be expected, but there is little agreement so far on the cause or causes. A spokesperson for the UK government’s Department of Health and Social Care, for example, says: “Analysis is ongoing, however early investigation suggests circulatory diseases and diabetes may be partly responsible for the majority of excess deaths.”

But Adrian Boyle, president-elect at the UK’s Royal College of Emergency Medicine doesn’t agree that conditions like this, potentially worsened by coronavirus lockdowns delaying routine appointments, are likely to be the cause. “It takes time to die from cancer, it takes time to die from heart failure,” he says. “These are all things that may have got worse during lockdown, but I’m not sure that is going to be driving the sudden and precipitous increase that we’ve seen in deaths this year.”

“The data suggest that it is very likely that something substantial is happening,” says Michael Murphy at the London School of Economics.

So, researchers are scrambling to figure out what is going on, with National Health Service (NHS) problems, an ageing population, heatwaves and a resurgence of covid-19 all also being mooted as possible causes for the sudden hike in deaths. The fear is that this trend could worsen in the winter when healthcare systems are typically under most pressure.

The increase in deaths has been seen across the UK. Between 2 April and 12 August in England and Wales, for example, 202,491 deaths were registered, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). This is 19,756 higher than the five-year average for this period – about an 11 per cent increase (see graph, below). The sudden drop in recorded deaths at the start of June is probably due to the extra Jubilee bank holiday in the UK and reflects the closure of registration offices, according to the ONS.

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