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HomeCOVID-19The Covid death toll in perspective (and some homework)

The Covid death toll in perspective (and some homework)


IT IS easy to forget how much the UK has grown in recent years. With a population of 68million, the UK has overtaken France to be fourth in Europe after Russia and Turkey (those parts which are classified as Europe) and Germany.

To make some sense of death figures, one needs to see them in proportion to the population. One way of doing this is using what are known as standardised mortalities.  Age standardised mortality (ASM) is a way of comparing mortalities from year to year and also takes into account changes in the age structure of the population.

The age standardised mortality for the last 20 years has been about 1 per cent: that means that 1 per cent of the population die every year. The ASM is normally quoted in deaths per hundred thousand, so the average ASM for the UK is 1,000 deaths per hundred thousand. It is worth knocking around some figures to get a feel for these numbers. 

Let’s think of a couple of good-sized cities in the UK. I’ve chosen Bath and Preston because they each have populations of about 100,000. With a standardised mortality of 1,000 per hundred thousand, this corresponds to 1,000 people dying in each of these towns every year. Table 1 shows us how this 1,000 is typically made up. 

We can see that, as we would expect, nearly 90 per cent of the deaths are among those over 60. There are significant numbers dying in the 40-59 age group and a few are younger.  

These are typical figures for an ordinary year. Now let us consider what has happened in 2020 where the figures have been affected by Covid. I’m going to use the worst-case figures, which I believe to be an overestimate, so there can be no hint of any fudge. I’m going to use a figure of 1,080 for each of these cities, an extra 80 deaths. That’s an 8 per cent increase on the normal figures. 

As we would expect, Table 2 shows us that the extra 80 Covid deaths are mainly among the over-60s. But we can see that there are five deaths under the age of 60: four of these are in the 40-59 age group and one is in the 20-39 age group. The 60-79 age group, with 20 deaths, is significantly affected. The biggest group is those over 80, with 56 deaths, corresponding to an even greater mortality rate because the years have already eroded their numbers to fewer than in younger age groups. 

A few days ago I looked at the distribution of Covid deaths between those with and those without pre-existing conditions. It is instructive to consider the same issue in our typical city. 

Having worked on these figures, they are familiar to me. But I still find it surprising how few in good health have been affected by Covid in a good-sized city like Bath or Preston. The 37 per cent chance of a death under 60, plus the 51 per cent chance of a death under 80 add with the 74 per cent chance of a death over 80 to give, on average, two deaths among those who are fit and well. That won’t even create a stream of stories in the local papers: those two deaths mean two deaths in the whole of 2020. 

If we wish to have something to compare with this figure, our sample cities should expect to have 26 deaths by various sorts of accidents every year, the largest group being road accidents. About 500 deaths per year are the big three of circulation, respiration and cancer. 

Sometimes it is useful to imagine the UK’s 68million to be made up of 680 cities, each having a population of 100,000. The figure of two fit and well people dying in each of those cities corresponds to 1,360 fit and well people dying of Covid in the whole of the UK, broadly in line with the figures of my previous article. 

Finally I’m going to throw at you a bit of homework. I am always happy to have your corrections to the inevitable mistakes in my analysis. this time I shall leave you with a graph with no comment from me. 

Figure 4 shows the Age Standardised Mortality for England from 2011 to 2020, averaged over an eight-week period to smooth out the curves. Here is your chance to go first and make your own relevant observations and comments about things that this graph shows us. I promise to read them all before I return to this graph in a few days’ time. 

It has been my practice to offer Mars Bars for the best answers I receive but I am a bit worried about the amount of sugar being consumed. Perhaps Vitamin D pills?

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Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse is a physicist and author. He is a former headmaster, independent school inspector and A level chief examiner.

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