“Some cautiously positive news announced today by the Office for National Statistics shows that the number of suicides during the peak of the pandemic was down from 10.3 per 100,000 to 6.9 per 100,000”.
Matt Hancock MP, 1 September 2020
Health secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons that new figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show the number of suicides in England fell during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic. The figures do not show this and it is too early to say how the number of suicide deaths changed during the pandemic.
While the figures quoted by Mr Hancock are the latest reported by the ONS, it has clearly said that this data “cannot be used to show the number of suicides with a date of death in 2020, including those that occurred during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic”.
The provisional data, released on 1 September, shows the rate and number of suicide deaths registered up to June 2020. This data reported 10.3 suicides per 100,000 people between January and March (equivalent to 1,262 registered deaths), and 6.9 suicide deaths per 100,000 people between April and June, equivalent to 845 registered deaths.
It is important to note that these figures show when these deaths were registered, not when they happened.
The 845 suicides registered in the second quarter of 2020 is the lowest number of any quarter since the figures began in 2001, and the ONS said it is “unlikely that the reduction in registered deaths reflects a genuine reduction in the number of suicides”.
It warns: “The lower number of deaths registered caused by suicide in Quarter 2 of 2020 should be interpreted with caution; this likely reflects delays to inquests because of the impact of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic on the coroner’s service.”
All suicides are investigated by a coroner, and it often takes around five months to hold an inquest before the death can be registered. The ONS said the current figures cannot be used to show the actual number of suicides that took place in 2020, as less than one in four suicides registered so far this year also happened in 2020.
The ONS said this means that we “do not currently know the total number of suicides that occurred” during the pandemic.
For example, from April to June 2020—during the peak of the coronavirus crisis in England— 51% of the deaths registered took place before 2020, and 43.7% occurred during Quarter 1. Just 5.3% of the 845 suicides registered in those months actually took place during this period (45 deaths).
Responding to the ONS figures, Ruth Sutherland, chief executive of Samaritans, said it was important to “use this data responsibly and remember we don’t yet have a clear picture of what has happened this year, because of the persistent problem of reporting delays for suicides.”
This means Mr Hancock was wrong to say that suicide deaths fell during the peak of the pandemic, as it is too early for the evidence to show what happened. Labour MP Liz Twist has asked for the record to be corrected in the House of Commons.
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The Samaritans’ helpline is available at all hours and can be contacted free on 116 123, or you can email email@example.com.