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New research examines the fall in non-Covid deaths during the pandemic

14 May 2021 4 minute read
Covid heatmap. Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Richard Youle, local democracy reporter

Fewer people were buried or cremated in Swansea during the pandemic year of 2020 than in four of the previous five years, according to figures from the council.

The numbers have baffled a Swansea resident who had asked for them via a Freedom of Information request.

The response shines a light on a curious aspect of the last 14 months – namely that non-Covid deaths have dropped noticeably.

Overall the number of deaths in Wales has been higher than the previous five year-average because of the coronavirus – but the fall in non-Covid deaths has reduced what public health experts call “excess” deaths.

Take Swansea, for example.

According to analysis of Office for National Statistics data by the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication, at Cambridge University, there were 2,898 deaths in Swansea between the beginning of April last year and April this year. A total of 603 of them were Covid-related, but there were only 39 excess deaths compared to the previous five years. This is because there were 564 fewer non-Covid deaths.

This trend is generally replicated, to varying degrees, throughout Wales and the UK. In large part this seems to be because deaths from accidents and respiratory and infectious diseases fell as people spent more time at home and didn’t mix.

In Carmarthenshire there were 2,529 deaths of all causes, including 463 Covid ones, but only 95 excess deaths. Again, this is explained by a sizeable fall in non-Covid deaths.

Neath Port Talbot, which has a smaller population than Swansea and Carmarthenshire, was hit harder by Covid and, with 466 deaths out of a total of 1,953. It also had a less pronounced drop in non-Covid deaths, which pushed its excess death tally to a relatively high 264.

Looking at Wales as a whole, there were 7,564 Covid-related deaths between April 2020 and 2021 out of a total of 37,612 deaths. But because non-Covid deaths were 4,700 less than the five-year average, the excess death figure was 2,864.

The Local Democracy Reporter Service asked the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) to explain why non-Covid deaths had fallen.

Health inequalities

Dr Olwen Williams, RCP vice-president for Wales said: “It’s very difficult to know at this stage how and why mortality rates have changed in the past 14 months. We simply don’t have enough information. However, we do know that the pandemic has exacerbated existing health inequalities, and has disproportionately affected people who were already struggling.”

Public Health Wales (PHW) said there were probably a number of reasons.

“The social distancing and hygiene measures will have been effective against a whole variety of infectious disease, including flu; the lock-downs will have reduced the number of people out and about and therefore the risk of accidents,” said Dr Kirsty Little, consultant in public health at the PHW Observatory.

“There is also, very sadly, the probability that a number of people who may have been vulnerable to something like flu may have also have been vulnerable to Covid.”

The data throws up a bit of a mixed picture on deaths in areas with significant health inequalities.

Areas with high levels of deprivation include Rhondda Cynon Taf, which had a lot of Covid deaths (856) between April last year and this year but also a noticeable decrease in non-Covid deaths, leaving 511 excess deaths.

However, neighbouring Merthyr Tydfil had fewer Covid deaths (208) but – unlike other areas – more non-Covid deaths than normal. This pushed up its excess death tally to 248.

Meanwhile, Blaenau Gwent actually had 103 fewer excess deaths during the pandemic year than the previous five years, because the fall in non-Covid deaths outstripped the Covid ones.

The Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication also examined where people died, and found that there were more deaths at home and in care homes than the five-year average, but slightly fewer in hospitals.

In Swansea, there were 2,491 cremations and burials in the 2020 calendar year, more than in 2019 but fewer than the four years before that.

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