“In the four weeks of September 2019, while Boris Johnson tried to force through a general election, 1,248 more people died in England and Wales than was usual at that time of year.
This news was largely unreported in part because no public officials are allowed to comment on these figures thanks to a British election tradition known as “Purdah”.”
There are no Purdah restrictions on the reporting of mortality statistics during a general election. The Office for National Statistics publishes the number of deaths registered once a month. This dataset rarely gets media attention because the figures in it are not particularly newsworthy.
The number of deaths is partly dependent on the size and age of the population. In Britain, the population has been growing rapidly, largely as a result of the ageing population. The first Baby Boomers are now in their seventies. A rise in the birthrate after the Second World War was always going to lead to a rise in the number of deaths when those babies grew old. As Public Health England says, the “reduction in the number of deaths up to 2011 happened despite a population which was both growing in size and ageing. However, given this, it was inevitable that the downward trend in the number of deaths could not continue indefinitely.”
The important figure is not the absolute number of deaths but the death rate. According to the Office for National Statistics, the age-standardised death rate in England fell from 1,010 per 100,000 in 2010 to 975 per 100,000 in 2018. It is true that it went up and down several times in between, but the ONS projects that it will be at an all time low of 910 per 100,000 in 2019.
Dorling is correct about the September figures. There were 38,165 deaths registered in that month, and that is more than the five-year average of 36,917. He could also have noted that there were more deaths than average in July and August. On the other hand, there were fewer deaths than average in the first six months of 2019, so it would be rash to read too much into this.
Dorling, however, reads a great deal into it…
“The numbers of people dying, week in, week out, tell us more about the four countries of the UK than we could ever hope to learn from the attention given to Brexit. This is a kingdom falling apart.”
“For everyone, life expectancy has fallen.”
This is Dorling’s main theme and he is wrong. In its latest report on the subject, published in September, the ONS says: “UK life expectancy has not been declining. In 2016 to 2018, UK life expectancy at birth was the highest observed for both males and females.”
In the period between 2009-11 and 2016-18, male life expectancy rose from 78.4 years to 79.25 years, while female life expectancy rose from 82.6 years to 82.9 years. This is a slower rate of improvement than we have come to expect from previous decades, but at no point has it declined, and it is currently at an all time high for both sexes.
Dorling also claims:
“Life expectancy across the whole of the UK for both women and men – as calculated by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) – did not return to its 2014 level in 2015. Nor did it in 2016, 2017, or 2018.”
Again, this is simply untrue. The figures are so easy to check that it is baffling that an Oxford professor has not done so.
Dorling goes on:
“In early 2014, I published an article in New Statesman magazine trying to highlight that the fact that something very unusual was happening: the life expectancy of elderly people in the UK – notably women – had begun to fall.
The following year, there was a huge rise in deaths.”
Dorling’s New Statesman article focused on a rise in the number of deaths in 2012 and 2013. The death rate did indeed rise – from 977 per 100,000 in 2011 to 988 per 100,000 in 2013. Contrary to his predictions, it then fell steeply in 2014 – to 935 per 100,000 – before shooting up in 2015 to 999 per 100,000.
The rise in 2015 has been attributed to a particularly nasty outbreak of winter flu which increased mortality all over Europe, combined with a particularly ineffective flu vaccine. If you look at the statistics, the large spike in deaths in January 2015 is unmistakable. Largely as a result of this, the number of ‘excess winter deaths’ in 2014/15 was the highest since 1999/2000, but any notion of ‘austerity’ being to blame was scotched the following year when the number of winter deaths was among the lowest on record.
Dorling whispers darkly that there is “no evidence of a deliberate cover-up”, but he nevertheless dismisses those who point to flu outbreaks and cold winter snaps as the driver of year-to-year fluctuations in the death rate. Nor does he accept that the slowdown in life expectancy is a phenomenon that has been observed in across Europe and North America in the last decade. Instead, he sees it as a purely British problem which has a very specific cause…
“With colleagues, I have looked at all the possible causes and explanations and now think that the vast majority of the extra deaths that have occurred were almost certainly the result of austerity. In other words – the result of deliberate cuts in public spending.”
This is a reference to a study due to be published next year. It is difficult to see how such a hypothesis could be tested, let alone proven. I shall nonetheless read it with interest when it emerges. But knowing Dorling, I’d be surprised if anything useful came out of it.