Vaccines, overconfidence and 98% cuts

An open letter makes a strong claim about vaccine effectiveness.

Anthony B. Masters
3 min readMay 1, 2021


How much do vaccines cut deaths from COVID-19? An open letter from scientists, published in the Mail on Sunday, asserts:

We can be very confident that they will reduce Covid deaths by around 98 per cent and serious illness by 80–85 per cent.

This figure does not come from a vaccine effectiveness study. This post looks at those two claims.

How well do vaccines protect against death?

Vaccines can limit deaths in three ways:

  • Infection prevention: it stops people becoming infected with the virus.
  • Reducing severity: among people who still get infected, that infection is less severe — with fewer deaths.
  • Dampening transmission: of those infected, it can lower the likelihood of passing on the virus. That reduces further cases and later deaths.

The UK daily COVID-19 deaths measure reached a peak of 1,360 on 19th January. In the United Kingdom (without Wales), that counts deaths within 28 days of a positive test. Public Health Wales uses a different definition of confirmed deaths. That agency counts deaths with clinical suspicion COVID-19 contributed to the death. The centred seven-day average was 1,285.

UK daily surveillance COVID-19 deaths, by date of death, from 1st September 2020. (Image: GOV.UK)

By 13th April, that deaths measure fell to 20. The centred seven-day average was about 21. The reduction in rolling average deaths was around 98%. The letter appears to attribute the entire fall in recorded deaths to vaccines.

That ignores the impact of public restrictions. In England, there have been three national stay-at-home orders. Those lock-downs started on: 23rd March 2020, 5th November 2020, and 6th January 2021. Other restrictions, including local lock-downs and tiers, have also permeated.

Lock-downs and vaccines are a tag-team: cutting cases and making infections less severe.

In their analysis, Public Health England estimate from their effectiveness studies:

Vaccine effectiveness against mortality was based on PHE estimates of effectiveness of vaccination against symptomatic infection (58%) and of…



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.