The number of people dying in England and Wales has reached the highest level since a devastating flu epidemic swept the country three years ago, new official figures showed yesterday.
More than 15,000 deaths – the great majority of which were elderly people – were recorded in the second week of January, amid a wave of seasonal illnesses, freezing weather conditions, and reports of crisis conditions in NHS hospitals.
It was the greatest weekly toll since January 2015, when the failure of flu vaccine contributed to the impact of an outbreak.
The 15,050 deaths reported by the Office for National Statistics for the week that ended on Friday 12 January represented an 18 per cent increase on the 12,723 reported in the first week of the year. The mortality level is 14 per cent higher than the average of 13,167 deaths in the corresponding week over the past five years.
The only other occasion in which there were more than 15,000 deaths in a single week in recent years was the second week of January in 2015, when the total registered was 16,237. However, in that year the number of deaths declined rapidly as the flu epidemic subsided.
The number of people dying in England and Wales has reached the highest level since a devastating flu epidemic swept the country three years ago
The ONS figures deal with the raw numbers of deaths that have been registered and it will be months before there are clear official figures on the causes.
However more than 13,000 people who died in the week were over the age of 65 and 6,621 were over 85.
Nearly two out of three over-85s who died in the second week of January were women, but at younger ages men were more likely to be victims. Among those who died between the ages of 65 and 74, 1,347 were men and 974 were women.
The rising numbers have been recognised by Public Health England, which in a flu bulletin this week said that ‘statistically significant excess all-cause mortality by week of death was seen’ among over-65s in the second week of January.
One cause of the high death rate may be that the main H3N2 flu strain circulating this year – known as ‘Aussie flu’ after a major outbreak in Australia last winter – is resistant against vaccination among the elderly.
Earlier this month health bosses wrote to GPs asking them to use up their vaccine stocks. Sir Bruce Keogh, NHS England medical director, and Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, told doctors: ‘We appreciate the very real pressures you are under, but we only have a couple of weeks left to maximise the impact of the vaccine programme and nationally there are still over three million patients in target groups that could benefit.’
The flu outbreak is putting a huge strain on hospitals, with doctors warning the conditions in the NHS are the worst they have ever seen.
Patients are dying in the corridors of overcrowded A&E units because there are not enough beds, leading doctors warned in a letter to the Prime Minister earlier this month.
Some analysts have said the pressure on the NHS could be indirectly killing people.
More than 15,000 deaths – the great majority of which were elderly people – were recorded in the second week of January, amid a wave of seasonal illnesses and freezing weather
Oxford University academic Professor Danny Dorling, an expert on population levels, said in a report in the autumn that excess deaths are driven not by flu but by bed-blocking.
Professor Dorling said up to 8,000 people a year die as a result of delayed discharges, where people are stuck in hospital even though they are medically fit to leave. When hospitals are already full, this means others cannot get a bed and operations are cancelled.
Some 55,000 operations have been cancelled in January alone in a bid to relieve pressure on the NHS.
The scale of bed blocking in the NHS is the worst it has ever been, with more than 5,000 people trapped in hospital at any time.
The problem, which is linked to the high cost individuals and families face paying when vulnerable elderly people move from a publicly-funded NHS bed to a privately-funded care home, has more than doubled in the last seven years . Some 55,332 bed-days were lost in August 2010, compared with 115,742 in August 2017.
Professor John Newton, Director of Health Improvement at Public Health England said: ‘These are provisional statistics that give us an early indication of recent trends in mortality. We can see that mortality was higher than the average for recent years at the start of 2018.
‘This cannot, with certainty, be attributed to specific causes, but the very cold weather that we experienced in some areas since Christmas and flu are likely to have been contributing factors.’