A significant, although grim, milestone in the story of this pandemic was passed this morning.
Data newly released by the ONS shows that the week ending March 20th was the first week since the crisis began that the overall level of deaths in England and Wales was higher than normal — albeit very slightly so at 10,645 compared to an average week 12 figure of 10,573.
In every previous week in 2020 since the middle of January when the first news broke about coronavirus, deaths have been below average. This is likely to be due to a combination of normal variables such as weather and the effect of increased hand washing (which was first advised at the start of February) and social distancing, which have lowered transmission of seasonal flu, motor traffic accidents and other regular causes of death.
As the pandemic progresses to its projected peak, you’d expect this trend to increase dramatically.
With so much uncertainty around the science and how to measure the progress of this pandemic — and disagreement about which deaths should be counted as genuinely caused by the virus — looking at the overall death figures is a useful crude metric to fall back on. It shows how we are doing as a society overall: is the combination of the pandemic and the measures we are taking to fight it leading to more, or fewer, people dying than normal?
So far in this crisis, the answer has happily been ‘fewer’ — but that changed with this morning’s data. We’ll be keeping a close eye on this metric in the coming weeks.