Britain’s excess death rate is at a disastrous high – and the causes go far beyond Covid | Owen Jones

A deadly, avoidable crisis is under way, fuelled by NHS cuts, the neglect of social care, inequality and the soaring cost of living

When most people hear that phrase “humanitarian crisis”, they think “abroad”, “somewhere far away”, and certainly not in Britain. But how else to describe the tens of thousands of bodies avoidably piling up in the nation’s mortuaries? One funeral home worker says that they’ve run out of spaces for the deceased and “are having to keep some encoffined in office rooms”; another hospital porter reports that the mortuary has been near capacity for two weeks. This national issue should be splashed on every front page and leading every bulletin. It isn’t: why?

Last year in the UK there were nearly 40,000 excess deaths – that is, deaths above a five-year average. That’s nearly as many as were killed by the Luftwaffe in the blitz. In the last two weeks of 2022, deaths were a fifth higher than the average from 2016 to 2019 (the last pre-pandemic year), and that’s taking into account factors such as a bigger, ageing population.

According to the Office for National Statistics, there have been about 170,000 excess deaths in England and Wales since the pandemic began. Most of these can be directly attributed to Covid-19 itself: after all, the virus’s name is scrawled on the death certificates of more than 212,000 UK citizens. Some of those who died may have been vulnerable or infirm, but in other circumstances years away from death. As the pandemic waned, we could have expected excess deaths to shift to below average levels over time. This has not happened.

By the beginning of last year, the number of deaths was similar to 2019. As the actuary Stuart McDonald points out, we had been through the worst of a pandemic in which many frail members of society died, and normally mortality falls year on year, so to only equal the death toll of 2019 was already indicative of a worrying trend.

Even this data uncovered something disturbing – higher death rates among relatively young adults, and as spring came, more dying than in 2019. And here’s the thing: while the dreadful Covid death toll continues to mount, many of these excess deaths are driven by other factors.

Britain is scarred by features that have made it particularly vulnerable, both while the virus raged before mass immunisation, and in the aftermath. Some are the direct consequences of Tory policy, some are more profound: about the way our society is organised. That means today’s excess deaths go way beyond Covid.

One, the crisis in our NHS. There were about 2,200 additional deaths in England associated with A&E delays in December alone. Average ambulance response times in England are now the worst on record, and more than half of patients are waiting for more than four hours at A&E for the first time since records began in 2011.

Now consider former health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s confession that he was partly to blame for an NHS staffing crisis that left Britain more vulnerable to the pandemic and its after-effects. Consider the impact on retention and recruitment of the Tories’ scrapping of the nurses’ bursary, and the fact that nurses have lost, on average, £5,000 a year in real terms pay since 2010: there are about 50,000 vacancies in England.

There is no question that Covid has resulted in high levels of staff absenteeism, and burnt-out health workers who, normally, would have had some respite outside the winter months. A larger, better-resourced workforce would surely have absorbed the impact better.

Consider, too, that one of the crises currently afflicting the NHS is that medically fit patients who nonetheless need support cannot be discharged. A major driver of this is a lack of capacity in social care – which, since 2010, has suffered hundreds of millions of pounds’ worth of cuts, despite there being ever greater demand for it from an ageing population.

There is also a more structural factor at play. Our society is defined by inequality, and poverty breeds poor health: conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure, respiratory disease, even cancer. So what happens if you throw a pandemic at an under-resourced healthcare system, in a profoundly unequal society ravaged by poor health?

What if you add a cost-of-living crisis which – just as an example – leads vulnerable people to fear turning on their heating in cold snaps such as the one we endured in early December? What if you also have a government that has spent years obliterating the public health budget, which is intended to promote healthy lives and prevent illnesses that impose pressures on the NHS?

This is the British tragedy: a country left exposed to disaster because of the fatal conjoining of a broken economic system and an ideologically crazed government. This is a humanitarian crisis, and it should be framed as such. But as those bodies pile up in our mortuaries and funeral homes, remember this – it was all avoidable.

  • Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist


Owen Jones

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Any Covid inquiry must help us 'fix the roof' before the next pandemic hits | Charlotte Summers
Along with Britain’s woeful lack of preparation for a pandemic, an inquiry must address why being poor kills, says intensive care doctor Charlotte Summers

Charlotte Summers

18, Mar, 2021 @3:48 PM

Article image
Here’s what the Covid inquiry didn’t tell you – being poor was like a death sentence | Owen Jones
If wealthy people in the Tories’ southern heartlands had died in their thousands, it would have been a very different story, says Guardian columnist Owen Jones

Owen Jones

14, Oct, 2021 @2:32 PM

Article image
Covid exposed massive inequality. Britain cannot return to 'normal' | Michael Marmot
The more deprived the area, the higher the mortality rate – for all causes of death, says professor of epidemiology Michael Marmot

Michael Marmot

15, Dec, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Alarming new data shows the UK was the 'sick man' of Europe even before Covid | Richard Horton
A global study has exposed how poorly prepared Britain was for a virus that targets our most vulnerable people, says Lancet editor Richard Horton

Richard Horton

18, Oct, 2020 @12:00 PM

Article image
Liverpool is tired, angry and ready for a fight with Boris Johnson | Liam Thorp
Scousers were too savvy to ever be taken in by the Tories’ talk of ‘levelling up’. After coronavirus, they’ve had enough, says Liam Thorp, political editor at the Liverpool Echo

Liam Thorp

29, Oct, 2020 @12:19 PM

Article image
Sunak’s Covid decisions tell us how he might act now. It doesn’t look good for the NHS | Devi Sridhar
His choices as chancellor played a crucial role in the second wave, says Prof Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh

Devi Sridhar

31, Oct, 2022 @8:00 AM

Article image
Corbyn’s inspiring manifesto takes me back to Labour 1945 blueprint for hope | Harry Leslie Smith
My generation is the last to remember the destitution of life in Britain before the NHS and the welfare state. Heed our warnings, before we are gone

Harry Leslie Smith

17, May, 2017 @1:51 PM

Article image
Labour is on the warpath at last. But why is it targeting benefit claimants and disabled people? | Frances Ryan
By reviving scrounger myths and rubbishing free social care, Starmer’s begun a race to the bottom – one the Tories will win, says Guardian columnist France Ryan

Frances Ryan

20, Apr, 2023 @7:00 AM

Article image
Poor housing linked to high Covid-19 death rate in London borough
Inquiry says poverty and overcrowding in Brent create ideal conditions for the virus

Patrick Butler Social policy editor

17, Aug, 2020 @1:15 PM

Article image
Cancer in your 20s is terrifying – too many of us are left to cope alone | Hannah Partos
Survival rates for 13 to 24-year-olds are rising. Yet post-cancer care is still lacking, says journalist and cancer survivor Hannah Partos

Hannah Partos

21, Jan, 2019 @2:03 PM