‘Get Covid and live longer’? Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp at Covid Inquiry fact checked

2 November 2023
What was claimed

The average age of Covid-19 deaths is higher than the average life expectancy, which means that people who get Covid live longer.

Our verdict

The median age of Covid deaths around the end of 2020 was higher than life expectancy at birth at the time, but many people were also younger than that. Life expectancy also increases with age and people who reach their eighties generally still have years left to live.

“I must say I have been slightly rocked by some of the data on Covid fatalities. The median age is 82-81 for men and 85 for women. That is above life expectancy. So get Covid and live longer.”

Comments on WhatsApp by the former Prime Minister Boris Johnson have been widely reported after the messages were discussed at the Covid-19 Inquiry on 31 October 2023.

In October 2020, in a conversation about Covid policy with Lee Cain and Dominic Cummings, two of his advisers at the time, the Inquiry heard that Mr Johnson compared the age of people dying from Covid with general life expectancy. Later in the exchange, the Inquiry was told he said: “It shows we don’t go for nation wide lockdown.”

Full Fact first wrote about Mr Johnson’s comments when they were leaked to the media in 2021, because of their potential to confuse people about Covid and life expectancies.

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What these numbers mean (and don’t mean)

Mr Johnson was right about the age at which people were dying of Covid around this time. According to data for England and Wales released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in January 2021, the median age was 81 for men and 85 for women (meaning half of all Covid deaths were in younger people, and half older).

He was also right that both figures were higher than the UK life expectancy at birth that was published at the time, which was around 79 for men and 83 for women.

Obviously this did not mean that catching Covid made people “live longer”, and it seems likely that Mr Johnson did not mean this comment to be taken seriously.

However, these statistics do not make a good comparison for several reasons, as experts at the Covid Actuaries Response Group (a group of actuaries, epidemiologists and public health experts) have explained.   

And they certainly don’t mean that everyone dying of Covid was in their eighties, or that the average person dying of Covid was already close to death.

According to ONS data for England and Wales in 2020, about 39% of people who died with Covid mentioned on their death certificate were under 80, about 16% were under 70, and about 6% were under 60.

And once people are in their eighties, life expectancy at birth is no longer relevant to them personally—because the risk of dying before 80 is something they have already avoided.

In practice, people who reach old age can often expect to live for several more years. According to the ONS Life Expectancy Calculator in October 2020, an 81-year-old man could on average expect to live to 89, and an 85-year-old woman could expect to live to 92.

Some estimates in 2021 suggested that the average person who died of Covid lost about a decade of their life.

Image courtesy of Cabinet Office

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