Covid-19 will not kill more people

One interesting aspect of the Covid-19 crisis was about the “the science”. We have policy that is apparently being driven by “the science” so we were curious to know more about it. On 21st March we asked a relatively simple question. Of the numbers of people announced as “dead” each day what does that mean.

In other words are these people who happened to have tested positive for coronavirus and died but the virus may not have been the cause of death. Or does it mean 70 people died as a direct consequence of having coronavirus?

This was interesting because the Somerset CCG felt unable to answer and referred us to Public Health England. Within a week we were being told of research that contrasted Covid-19 fatalities with that of flu. It is generally accepted that every year between 10,000 and around 27,000 people die of flu. The way these numbers are calculated is specific. These are people who would not have died from other causes, they are deaths due to flu that are over and above the number of deaths expected in the period if flu was absent.

Interestingly Covid-19 related deaths are not being reported this way. They are simply deaths of people who had tested positive for Covid-19.

Meanwhile research on the outbreak to date coming from China noted something interesting. For people who caught the virus and did NOT have either: cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes or respiratory disease; the death rate was less than 1%.

This fed into more work carried out by David Spiegelhalter a statistical expert at Cambridge University and Chair of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication is even more interesting. He has worked on the numbers compiled by the Imperial College team advising the government on its Covid-19 strategy.

His work showed how the trend in Covid-19 deaths increases dramatically with age. When he then overlaid that data on the way that background mortality (ie death rates without taking account of external factors) increases with age, he discovered the lines were almost identical.

What this means is that if you get the virus in the next 2 weeks, your risk of dying is exactly the same as it would have been of dying anyway in the next 12 months. Because it is also true that the most deaths occur each year in people who are already ill (and especially the illnesses identified in the Chinese figures).

This is not to say that government action is wrong

True the virus is not killing more people than would normally die within the next 12 months. However by accelerating the deaths of those who would be likely to die in the next 12 months anyway, into a matter of weeks, this really would put enormous strain on the NHS. It could potentially completely overwhelm it (to say nothing of the funeral industry, registrars and all the other people who have a role in processing deaths).

The government policy to restrict and restrain the spread is sensible and for sensible reasons. It is true that the Chinese study and Professor Spiegelhalter’s suggest that your risk of dying is not materially different as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak. But for those in the population with underlying health conditions where the risk of death in the next 12 months is remains significant and very real.

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