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Government must investigate rising excess deaths in England and Wales, experts warn

BMJ 2018; 361 doi: (Published 11 May 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;361:k2127
  1. Gareth Iacobucci
  1. The BMJ

Research experts have urged the government and MPs to investigate rising numbers of deaths in England and Wales, after new figures showed over 20 000 “excess deaths” so far in 2018.

Earlier this year an analysis of the Office for National Statistics’ data on weekly provisional deaths in England and Wales, published in The BMJ,1 found that by week seven of 2018 (ending 16 February) 10 000 more people had died than the average from the past five years.

Lucinda Hiam, honorary research fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Danny Dorling, professor of geography at the University of Oxford, who carried out the study, said that neither flu nor winter weather seemed to be the main cause of the increase.

A subsequent analysis from the same authors,2 posted on 8 May as a rapid response to the original article, shows that by the end of week 16 (ending 20 April) 20 215 more people have died than the average for the past five years.

The authors found it unlikely that this trend was a “blip” and urged the government and the House of Commons Health Select Committee to investigate the issue.

They wrote, “The latest Office for National Statistics data on weekly provisional deaths in England and Wales sadly provide little reassurance of this being a ‘blip’ as some have suggested. Yet, still, no action taken or even mention of a possible investigation has been heard from the Department of Health and Social Care. How many deaths will it take for the government to take note?”

Last year an analysis by Michael Marmot, a leading public expert, found that the rate of increase in life expectancy in England had almost halved since 2010 and was close to stalling.3

In response to Hiam and Dorling’s analysis, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said, “We keep all research in this area under review, but the ‘age standardised mortality rate’—which has been broadly stable in recent years—is considered a much more reliable measure, as this type of research doesn’t take into account fluctuations in population numbers and the ageing population.”

But Dorling and Hiam strongly criticised the department’s response, saying, “The age standardised rates should not be ‘broadly stable’—they should be getting better as they have for almost all years since 1945, and are doing in all other European countries in recent years (2011 to 2015). “There is no other country in western Europe that has experienced a stalling in mortality improvement across the board as poor as that in the UK in recent years.”

They said that the Health Select Committee should carry out an investigation and “call ministers from the Department of Health and officials from Public Health England to answer their very specific questions without evasion.”


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