Are death rates no higher this year than in a bad flu season?

CLAIM: The death rate in Northern Ireland is no higher in 2020 than in previous years.

CONCLUSION: UNSUBSTANTIATED. The imprecision of “death rates” and “a bad flu season” makes it difficult to prove or disprove. However, the overall number of deaths registered in the second quarter of 2020 (4,684) is the highest of any second quarter figures recorded in the last ten years. Excess deaths in Northern Ireland have been higher in 2020 than in any of the previous ten years.

Death rates

The term “death rate” usually refers to the percentage of deaths in a particular period from a specific cause. (It is sometimes used to express the proportion of people who die from, rather than survive, a particular medical condition, or the proportion of the whole population who die.)

The latest full set of Registrar General Quarterly Tables were published on 17 September 2020. The table (4a) that classifies causes of deaths During Quarter 3 was published ahead of the full set of quarterly tables on 18 November 2020.

These figures show that “Novel Covonavirus (COVID-19)” was attributed as the underlying cause of 808 deaths during the first three quarters of 2020. This means that COVID-19 was the underlying, primary cause of death in 89.6 percent of all deaths that have COVID-19 mentioned at all on the death certificate. 

Flu season

What defines “a bad ‘flu season”? The Public Health Agency defines a flu season as from week 40 of a given year to week 20 of the following year. Its flu season bulletins focus on respiratory associated infections and provisional data at a point in time. We used more complete, coded data from the Registrar General bulletins, which cover all deaths during given time periods and reflect how COVID-19 has affected excess deaths (explained below).

The overall number of deaths registered in Quarter 2 2020 (4,684) is the highest of any second quarter figures in the last decade. Indeed, it is the second highest figure for any quarter of the year in the last decade, exceeded only by Q1 2018, a winter quarter with 5,045 deaths during what was reported as a severe winter flu across the UK.

Death rates in Q2 2020 were 43% higher than the average of second quarter deaths (3,275) registered between 2009–2019, and 30% higher than the average of deaths during all quarters during 2009–2019. These are clearly exceptional numbers of deaths for springtime.

Excess deaths

FactCheckNI has also written about another related term, “excess deaths, which are defined as deaths during a given period that are greater than the usual number of deaths in similar historic time periods. Variations in the excess death rate above or below the predicted average may indicate an event, for example a strain of influenza, which resulted in more deaths than usual.

The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) publishes statistics on weekly deaths, which include data to show excess deaths. The following chart shows cumulative excess deaths in Northern Ireland from 2010 to 2020. For 2020, up to week 47, the figure of excess deaths (1,531) is the highest since 2010.

Source: NISRA: Historical Weekly Deaths, 2009-2019; Cumulative Weekly Deaths, 2020 (Includes COVID-19 deaths). 

This fact check was part of FactCheckNI’s investigation of multiple claims made in a leaflet distributed in parts of Lagan Valley constituency.

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