The number of people dying right now is not the same as in any other year

18 November 2020
What was claimed

About 1% of the population is infected with Covid-19 today.

Our verdict

According to the most recent data, this is about right.

What was claimed

The number of people dying today is the same as it would be in any other year.

Our verdict

This is not correct. Deaths in the week to 6 November were 14% higher than the average across the past five years, and higher than the maximum across the past five years.

What was claimed

Deaths from flu and pneumonia have been replaced with Covid-19.

Our verdict

While the figures point towards a decrease in the number of deaths caused by flu and pneumonia, this has not just been replaced with deaths from Covid-19, which far exceed that possible shortfall.

“I’ll give you the absolute numbers today and people can then take that away and make their own decisions about how scared to be. So in terms of people actually infected today, it’s probably around 1% of the population. But the vast majority of those will have no symptoms and if you’re under about 65 then it’s less risk than regular flu. The number of people dying today is the same as it would be in any other year in total. People are dying of respiratory diseases today, it’s about the same as it normally would be. The thing is they would normally die of flu and pneumonia—those diseases are very, very much reduced this year and it’s been replaced with Covid.” 

In an interview with Julia Hartley Brewer on talkRADIO, health data scientist Professor Anthony Brookes made a number of claims about Covid-19. 

The claim that around 1% of people are infected is accurate, based on the best available information. 

The claim that flu and pneumonia deaths have just been “replaced with Covid” is not wholly accurate. Although there appears to have been a decline in the number of people dying from flu and pneumonia this year, Covid-19 has killed far more people than you would expect to die from flu and pneumonia in a normal year.

Finally, it is incorrect to claim that the number of people dying is as it would be in any other year. The number of deaths is well above the recent historic averages and maximums. 

Honesty in public debate matters

You can help us take action – and get our regular free email

More people are dying than would in an average year

Professor Brookes claimed that the number of people dying today is the same as it would be any other year. This is not true. 

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show the number of deaths registered in England and Wales in the week ending 6 November 2020 was 14.3% higher than the five-year average. 

Also the number of deaths registered in this week was higher than the number in the same week in any of the past five years in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.  

Deaths where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate accounted for 16.4% of all deaths (1,937) in England and Wales in this week. Of these, 90% had Covid-19 listed as the underlying cause of death. 

So far this year, up to 6 November, 517,650 people have died from any cause in England and Wales. This is 58,555 more than the five-year average.

Around 1% of the population is infected today 

According to the latest available data, Professor Brookes is correct to suggest that around 1% of the population is currently infected with the virus which causes Covid-19.

Figures from the ONS’ coronavirus infection survey, covering the week ending 6 November, estimate that 1.2% of the English population had the virus (654,000). This figure is 1.16% in Wales (35,300), 0.97% in Northern Ireland (17,800) and 0.75% in Scotland (39,700).

Professor Brookes also said the “vast majority” of those infected will have no symptoms. It’s difficult to know exactly what proportion of cases are asymptomatic as for much of the year testing has focused those with symptoms. 

Research published last month found that 86% of people who tested positive for the virus which causes Covid-19 did not have symptoms of the disease on the day of being tested (although they may have had symptoms before or developed them after). The study included data from 36,000 people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland who were tested between April and June this year. 

Another study looking at widespread testing in an Italian town in February found around 40% of those who tested positive were asymptomatic.

However, other studies have suggested the proportion of asymptomatic people could be far lower. One study by researchers at University College London and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine concluded that it was only a “substantial minority” (possibly around 23%) of contagious Covid-19 infections that are truly asymptomatic, rather than just asymptomatic on the day of their test. 

Covid-19 deaths are not simply replacing a lower number of flu and pneumonia deaths 

In the last five years (2015-2019), there have been an average of 28,140 deaths each year in England and Wales with an underlying cause of flu or pneumonia.  So far this year, flu or pneumonia have killed 18,325 people. 

While this data only goes up to 6 November and we know that more people die of flu and pneumonia in the winter months, this suggests that the total number of people who have died or will die this year from flu or pneumonia could be below average.

However, even with the data we have now, we can see that Covid-19 has killed almost twice as many people as would usually die of flu and pneumonia together, so it is not as simple as saying flu and pneumonia have simply been “replaced” with Covid.

ONS figures show there have been 53,675 deaths caused by Covid-19 so far this year. This data also only goes up to 6 November, so the overall figure for the year will be higher.

The ONS has reported that influenza and pneumonia deaths were below the five-year average in every month this year between January and August. During this period, deaths from Covid-19 were higher than flu and pneumonia deaths compared to every year data is available—going back to 1959. More than three times as many deaths were recorded between January and August this year where Covid-19 was the underlying cause compared to influenza and pneumonia.

ONS figures show Covid-19 mortality rates were higher than influenza and pneumonia mortality rates across all age groups in England, both in 2020 and compared to the five-year average.

Correction 19 November 2020

This piece was updated to clarify the finding that 86% of people who tested positive for the Covid-19 virus did not have symptoms of Covid-19. This only covered possible symptoms on the day of their test, though some may have had symptoms at some other time.

Update 20 November 2020

Updated to include the findings of a study by researchers at University College London and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

Full Fact fights bad information

Bad information ruins lives. It promotes hate, damages people’s health, and hurts democracy. You deserve better.