Independent SAGE and the “27,000 Excess Deaths” Claim

It is implausible there would be another “27,000 excess deaths” without another wave.

Anthony B. Masters

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Speaking on Sky News, Prof Sir David King (Independent SAGE) asserted:

What we are saying is 27,000 excess deaths are likely between now and next April if the expectation by the Chief Medical Officer is that he would be surprised and delighted if the UK is in the same place next spring.

If he’s correct we would still have about 2,000 to 3,000 new infections in England per day and that is the number of deaths that would follow from that.

Broadcasters Sky News and ITV repeated this claim on their websites. Newspapers repeated this figure, including: Evening Standard, Daily Mirror, The Independent, and Metro.

It is a very stringent assumption for infections to remain constant for nine months. The estimate implies an implausible infection fatality ratio of around 3.3%.

Excess deaths are not COVID-19 deaths

There are many problems with this claim. First, it confuses COVID-19 deaths with excess deaths.

Excess deaths means deaths above a baseline. That baseline is often an average of past years. The Office for National Statistics uses the past five years. Institutes may use modelled baselines for their ‘excess’ death calculations.

In the latest ONS report, weekly death registrations was lower than past years. For 20–26th June (week 26), the number of registered deaths from all causes was 3% below the five-year average. These death registration statistics are for England and Wales.

All figures for 2020 are provisional. This is by date of registration, not death. (Image: ONS)

Not all deaths with COVID-19 will be in excess. An epidemic disease can ‘bring forward’ some deaths. That displacement leads to fewer deaths in later weeks. Certificates may not give the correct diagnosis for all deaths. Some deaths with COVID-19 may not be diagnosed.

Some deaths with COVID-19 may not be diagnosed. (Image: ONS)

This is a conceptual difference between saying ‘excess deaths’ and ‘deaths with COVID-19’. Mortality displacement

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Anthony B. Masters

This blog looks at the use of statistics in Britain and beyond. It is written by RSS Statistical Ambassador and Chartered Statistician @anthonybmasters.