There are excess deaths in England and these PHE reports don’t prove otherwise

11 January 2021
What was claimed

The two most recent PHE reports show no statistically significant excess all-cause mortality.

Our verdict

There are excess deaths in England at the moment. The PHE reports used estimates that were distorted by the reporting lag over Christmas. PHE has already revised its findings for week 52 of 2020 and may revise its findings for week 53.

“The two most recent Public Health England All-Cause Mortality Surveillance reports (31 December and 7 January) show no statistically significant excess all-cause mortality.”

“We do NOT have EXCESS DEATHS.”

Over the past week or so, journalists and commentators have been sharing data from Public Health England (PHE) claiming it shows that deaths are not exceeding the historic averages.

When you look at PHE’s individual weekly reports on all-cause mortality in isolation, it does appear that way. However, PHE itself says that the data for the most recent weeks should be interpreted with caution due to delays in death reporting, which are particularly important over Christmas. 

It has already adjusted its finding for week 52, to show there actually was excess mortality in England during that week.

Nick Andrews, Senior Statistician at Public Health England, told us: “The number of excess deaths has been significantly higher than average in each of the last 16 weeks.”

We can see from other sources that more people are dying that usual at the moment. We have written about this before.

What does the report say?

PHE’s All-Cause Mortality Surveillance is published each week, and attempts to show whether more people are dying than usual for the time of year. Because it takes some time for each death to be reported, PHE uses an algorithm to estimate the number in the most recent weeks. 

The two most recent reports warn that, “This data should be interpreted with caution due to delays in reporting over the Christmas period.” A note at the bottom of the page says: “The recent weeks’ data are estimates with large registration delay corrections and therefore should be interpreted with caution. These estimates may differ substantially to future reports as the actual number of deaths become known.”

Data in the report for the 52nd week of 2020 therefore appeared to show deaths in England falling from well above the historic average in week 51, to the historic average in week 52. 

Data for the 53rd week of 2020 also appeared to show deaths in England in line with historic averages. 

However, in that same report, PHE also revised its estimate for week 52, noting that it was a “week with excess” after all.  

PHE’s separate “Excess mortality in England” report shows that deaths in the week ending 25 December were 1.3 times the expected level. This report is not available yet for week 53 yet, at the time of writing.

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