Non-Covid deaths in private homes are up, but have decreased elsewhere

21 October 2020
What was claimed

The number of deaths from diabetes is up 86%, from prostate cancer is up 53%, from Parkinson’s is up 79%, from breast cancer is up 47% and from bowel cancer is up 46%.

Our verdict

This refers to the number of deaths in private homes registered in England between March and September this year compared to the five-year average. Across all locations, the numbers of deaths from some of these diseases are in line with historic averages.

The front page of the Metro newspaper makes various claims about the rise in deaths from diseases and conditions which aren’t Covid-19 between March and September this year.

These statistics refer only to the number of deaths that happen in private homes, not the total number of deaths in the country.

While the first paragraph of Metro’s article suggests this, it is not completely clear, and the headline and subhead make no reference to this fact.

This is important context, because while deaths in private homes from conditions other than Covid-19 have increased, deaths outside of private homes (i.e. in hospitals, care homes and hospices) have, in many cases, decreased. 

The article does go on to quote Professor David Spiegelhalter from Cambridge University’s Statistical Laboratory as saying: “Most of these deaths would normally have occurred in hospital, and people have either been reluctant to go, discouraged from attending or the services have been disrupted. It is unclear how many of these lives could have been extended had they gone to hospital.” This quote appears on page 6 of the paper.

The available evidence we have at this point suggests that the total number of deaths is not significantly higher than the average number of deaths in the previous five years.

What do the figures tell us?

To take one example, the front page says that prostate cancer deaths are up 53%.

This refers to the change in the number of deaths from prostate cancer in private homes in England between 14 March and 11 September 2020 compared to the five year average. 

However this is almost entirely counterbalanced by a fall in the number of prostate cancer deaths outside of private homes. In all settings, there have been 4,979 deaths from prostate cancer registered in England over this time period, compared to the five-year average of 4,794.The front page also says that breast cancer deaths are up 47%. Again, this refers to the deaths of women in England in private homes over this period. But overall, the number of deaths from breast cancer is almost identical to the five-year average, at 4,565 compared to 4,550.

The article also says that deaths from dementia among women have risen 75%. Once again, this refers to private homes, but this is one area where the rise in private homes is not largely counterbalanced by a fall elsewhere. The total number of deaths from dementia and Alzheimer’s among women was 21,448, compared to the five-year average of 17,688, a rise of 21% (although the majority of these deaths occur in care homes, not private homes).

It is possible that some of these deaths from dementia were the result of Covid-19 deaths being misclassified, especially during the early part of the pandemic when testing was scarce, an issue we explore further here.

For the other diseases mentioned in the Metro, the ONS has not published the number which occurred outside of private homes so we cannot make the same comparisons. We have asked the ONS for this data.

That said, we can look at the total number of deaths from other diseases to further indicate that in most cases, non-Covid-19 deaths in private homes are generally counterbalanced by a decrease in other settings.

The ONS lists “ischaemic heart diseases” as the leading cause of death for men and women. 

In England, 23,843 deaths from ischaemic heart diseases were registered from 14 March to 11 September this year. That’s slightly below the five year average of 24,180. 

Similarly for cancers of the trachea, bronchus and lung, there were 12,607 death registrations in England over this period against 13,364 over a five-year average.

Deaths from “chronic lower respiratory diseases” are also slightly down compared to the average. 

So more people have died of each of these diseases in private homes than would be expected in a normal year, but this has been outweighed by the reduction in deaths from these diseases in other settings. 

Full Fact fights bad information

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