There were not 65,000 flu deaths in the winter of 2017/18

6 May 2022
What was claimed

65,000 people died of winter flu in December 2017 and January 2018.

Our verdict

This is not accurate. Although the actual number is uncertain, official estimates suggest that it is less than half of this.

A video on Facebook claims that 65,000 people in the UK died “of the winter flu” during the two-month period of December 2017 and January 2018.

This isn’t correct.

The total number of flu deaths can be difficult to count, but the best estimates we have suggest that the true number in that period, while sadly running into the thousands and higher than many other years, was much lower than 65,000.

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What the video says

The video from an account called UK Politics Uncovered compares the death toll from the Covid-19 pandemic with the number of deaths caused by seasonal influenza in the winter of 2017/18.

The woman in the video says: “In 2017/18, in December and January, 65,000 people died of the winter flu.”

She then adds: ”65,000 people in two months. That sounds like worse than what we’ve gone through, when we’ve got [around] 170,000 in 26 months.”

We’re not sure where the figure of 65,000 comes from, but we have checked a similar false claim in the past that 64,000 people died of flu in 2018. This appeared to refer to the death toll from all causes in England and Wales in January 2018, which was reported at the time by the Daily Mail as being driven by flu deaths. 

What was the real number?

When someone dies, a doctor familiar with their case records what they think was the underlying cause of death on their death certificate.

We’ve not been able to find data on the number of deaths with influenza as the underlying cause in December 2017 and January 2018 specifically. But official data for England and Wales shows that 458 such deaths were registered in the whole of 2017 and 1,598 in the whole of 2018. 

However figures for the number of confirmed influenza deaths don’t tell the whole story. Since people are not always tested for influenza, and people who die from it are often older with other health conditions, doctors are often not aware of flu infections that may have played a part in their deaths.

Public Health England (now succeeded by the UK Health Security Agency) therefore also used an algorithm to estimate the number of “deaths associated with influenza” in England each winter. According to this estimate, the 2017/18 winter was certainly bad for flu, with around 22,000 deaths estimated to have been associated with the virus.

Adding estimated flu deaths among people in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, who between them make up about 16% of the UK population, would raise this figure a bit. However, this figure also includes deaths over the whole flu season, not just in December and January as the Facebook video talks about.

From what we know, therefore, it seems likely that the number of people who died of flu in December 2017 and January 2018 was far lower than the video suggests.

Deaths during the pandemic have been extremely high

The woman in the video uses her claim about the number of flu deaths to support her argument that the number of Covid-19 deaths over the course of the pandemic has not been very different from levels seen in the past.

In fact the number of deaths in this country since the pandemic started has been extremely high—and deaths due to Covid account for a large part of this.

In March 2022, the Office for National Statistics said: “The total number of excess deaths, due to all causes, registered in England and Wales between March 2020 and December 2021 was 133,623 … For deaths where the underlying cause of death was not coronavirus (COVID-19), excess deaths were 7,401 below the five-year average.”

During the large waves of Covid infections in the spring of 2020 and winter of 2021, deaths from all causes in all four UK nations were also far above the normal range, with England, Scotland and Wales in particular showing larger peaks in mortality than in the winter of 2017/18.

Image courtesy of Towfiqu barbhuiya

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