The week before Christmas was the deadliest in England and Wales for almost two years, bleak figures today revealed.
Almost 15,000 fatalities were logged, a fifth higher than levels typically seen at that time of year before Covid struck.
Experts have blamed the huge excess death toll on the unprecedented NHS crisis and knock-on effects of the pandemic.
Despite piling extra pressure on an already-crippled health service, the ‘twindemic’ has yet to be reflected in the death count.
Ambulances parked outside the Royal London hospital in east London on January 4
Some patients were forced to lie on the floor in the busy A&E due to a lack of beds
The Office for National Statistics said 14,530 deaths were registered in England and Wales in the week ending December 23. The figure is almost 2,100 higher than the previous seven-day spell.
The toll was also the biggest since February 2021, during the height of the UK’s first Covid winter battle.
Only 429 of deaths logged across the most recent week — or 3 per cent — involved the virus, however. Covid was the underlying cause of death for roughly 70 per cent of those.
During the darkest spells of the pandemic, in early 2020 and the winter of 2020/21, more than 1,000 Brits were dying from it every day.
But the UK’s historic vaccine roll-out and repeated waves of infection have drastically blunted the threat of the virus.
This wall of immunity and effectives of the vaccines gave ministers the confidence to push ahead with its ‘Living with Covid strategy’, which saw all virus curbs — including masks, isolation and testing — axed early last year.
The rapid emergence of XBB.1.5, a variant nicknamed ‘the Kraken’, has sparked fears Britain will be rocked by a fresh wave in the coming weeks.
But top experts are convinced the strain will not sentence the nation into another round of brutal restrictions.
At the same time as Covid’s resurgence, the UK is also being battered by a ‘flu-nami’. It is crippling hospitals, which are already struggling to juggle huge demand, routine winter pressures and a mammoth bed-blocking crisis.
ONS figures show 829 fatalities were caused by flu and pneumonia in the week to December 23. The toll is around 300 higher than one week earlier — so doesn’t on its own explain the sudden hike in deaths.
The Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM) warned the spike in deaths are ‘undoubtedly’ linked to record delays for urgent care.
It said: ‘If you can’t get an ambulance to someone who’s having a heart attack or a stroke, then some of those patients are going to come to harm and may die as a result.’
Dr Adrian Boyle, president of the RCEM last week warned up to 500 patients are dying every week while they wait in overpacked emergency wards.
Stuart McDonald, an actuary who analyses death data, told The Times that the high fatality toll could be due to the crisis in A&E, winter viruses and the nurses’ and paramedics’ strikes.
He said: ‘We know that Covid and flu were at high levels and there were severe delays in A&E. These are also weeks when nurses and paramedics were on strike.’
The NHS crisis has seen patients face record delays in A&E this winter, with some reporting waits of up to four days, while others are treated in corridors, meeting rooms and even outside hospitals.
Doctors have described ‘Dickensian overcrowding’ in emergency departments, with some staff being forced to ask seriously ill patients to monitor their own vital signs.
Last week, one in five ambulance patients in England waited more than an hour to be handed over to A&E teams.
Paramedics are supposed to complete handovers to emergency department staff within 15 minutes, with none taking longer than 30 minutes.
But a lack of beds has seen paramedics queuing outside hospital for their entire shift until a space is found for their patient.
The situation led London Ambulance Service (LAS) to this week order its crews to hand over patients to emergency departments within 45 minutes even if the hospital has no available beds.
NHS chiefs have warned the crisis will rumble on until Easter.
The health service has blamed ongoing pressures in part on workforce shortages, with 130,000 vacancies. On top of this, staff absences are on the rise.
Further adding to the crisis is the fact that 12,000 hospital beds were taken up by bed-blockers in the last week.
England’s Chief Medical Office Sir Chris Whitty had previously warned that England faced a ‘prolonged period’ of excess due to the after effects of the pandemic.
This is expected to include heart disease deaths — in part due to drop in the number of people with healthy blood pressure levels — and cancer deaths as a result of delays to treatment during the Covid crisis.