New Statesman death comparison creates misleading picture

26 March 2021

The New Statesman has published an article questioning why “excess deaths” rose every year between 2012 and 2019.

The article, published on 26 March, calls this a “disquieting trend” and links deaths to policies of “austerity” under the coalition and subsequent Conservative governments. 

It ends by saying: “If there is a lesson from the plague year, it is surely that no government should ever again be cavalier about death – or the policies that cause it.”

However, the measure of “excess deaths”, meaning the number of deaths in each year above the average over the previous five years, isn’t just down to whether people are getting healthier or sicker. 

It’s also got quite a lot to do with how big the population is, and the country’s age profile.

The UK has a growing and an ageing population. What’s more, we have reached a period where the large number of children born just after the Second World War are reaching the age when, sadly, some are starting to die.

The fact that, over the past few years, the annual death toll has increased, is therefore not necessarily a sign that something bad is happening to our general health.

To allow for fairer comparisons over time, there is something called an age-standardised mortality rate (ASMR). This removes the impact of changing population size and structure from the data, which is the problem with the excess death figure.

While excess deaths rose from 2012 to 2019, the ASMR for England and Wales, broadly speaking, fell. In other words, people were living longer in 2019 than they were in 2012.  

Now, it is the case that the ASMR has been falling more slowly in recent years than it did previously, falling 6% in the seven years to 2019 (the period covered by the New Statesman article) compared to 14% in the seven years to 2012.

Life expectancy too has been stalling, with suggestions this could be linked to government policies

But the use of excess deaths statistics would suggest that, at a national level, the death rate has increased when it hasn’t. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, it had been improving, albeit more slowly than before.

Full Fact fights bad information

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