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Fact check: Posts inaccurately compare 2020 deaths in England and Wales with previous years

Social media posts have presented misleading statistics about the death toll in England and Wales as supposed evidence the coronavirus pandemic is not real.

Reuters Fact Check. REUTERS

An example of one such post (here) compared this year’s death toll with previous annual totals going back to 2013. It claimed the Office for National Statistics (ONS) had registered 511,883 deaths in 2020 by week 47 (Nov. 20), “almost 20,000 less deaths than last year”. The post finished with the sentence: “So exactly where is this pandemic that’s killed the country and its economic future and forced business closures and increased job losses.”

The statistics provided are partly incorrect and do not show the full picture: deaths this year are significantly higher than normal.

The post claims to have sourced its figures from ONS and the data from 2013 – 2019 are accurate. ONS did indeed report that the total death figure in England and Wales was 506,790 in 2013, 501,424 in 2014 (here), 529,655 in 2015 (here), 525,048 in 2016 (here),  533,253 in 2017 (here), 541,589 in 2018 and finally 530,841 in 2019 (here).

However in 2020, according to the latest ONS data, the provisional total number of deaths registered in England and Wales by week 47 was 542,463, not 511,883 as the post claims (here, choose ‘latest version’, then select ‘weekly figures 2020’, then see ‘total deaths, all ages’). An older version of ONS data shows the same total for week 47 (click ‘date superseded Dec. 8, 2020’).

It is unclear where the 2020 figure in the social media post came from. Other data sheets in the latest ONS release amount to different figures, for instance ‘estimated total deaths 2020’ totalled 537,430 by week 47 using a statistical model.

It is too early to accurately pinpoint the total number of deaths for 2020, but ONS figures registered by Dec. 5, 2020 show that there were 43,987 more deaths than the five-year average between 2015 and 2019 for January to November in England, with 1,981 more deaths than the average occurring in Wales (here, see part seven).

Age-standardised mortality rates (ASMR), calculated by ONS to provide clearer annual comparisons, show that England suffered in particular: its year-to-date ASMR for 2020 was 1,029.4 deaths per 100,000 people. ONS said this: “was statistically significantly higher than all years between 2009 and 2019.” (here, see part six).

The latest weekly figures also show that 15% more deaths were registered in England and Wales compared with the five-year average for the week ending Dec. 4 (here).

Government figures using data from Dec. 18 show that 203,845 people in the UK tested positive for COVID-19 in the last seven days, a weekly increase of 54.8%. Additionally, 12,745 patients were admitted to hospital with the novel coronavirus, which is 18% more than the previous week (coronavirus.data.gov.uk/).

The analysis in the misleading social media posts does not prove the pandemic did not happen. England has recorded 59,005 deaths of people within 28 days of a positive COVID-19 test, while the number of deaths recorded with COVID-19 on the death certificate stands at 65,061 as of Dec. 21 (here). In Wales those figures are 3,125 and 3,878 respectively (here).

Reuters has debunked similar misinformation here and here.

VERDICT

False. The figures cited in this post are partially inaccurate and do not demonstrate that there were fewer deaths in 2020 than 2019, nor that the pandemic is fake. Age-standardised mortality rates in England are “statistically significantly higher than in all years between 2009 and 2019”, according to ONS. Figures registered by Dec. 5 show there were 43,987 more deaths between Jan. 1 and Nov. 30 in England than the five-year average and 1,981 more deaths in Wales.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our fact-checking work here . 

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