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The puzzling question of whether more people died of Covid in Wales or England

Ultimately all the upheavals caused by Covid over the previous 27 months have been about saving lives. The slogans might have been “protect the NHS” or “stay alert” but the whole point was to keep people alive.

Due to this is makes sense to measure the performance of the Welsh and UK Government’s during the pandemic on the number of deaths. This might seem easy. Simply look at the amount of people in each area that died of Covid right? Well no. There are not only lots of ways to measure the amount of deaths, there are also really important disclaimers that come with assessing that data.

Read more: The definitive verdict on how the Welsh Government and UK Government compared in their handling of the pandemic

Given that politicians across the UK and political divides have pointed to these figures to promote themselves and attack opponents it is worth taking an objective look at what the data says.

In the spring last year, based on the way the Office for National Statistics (ONS) records deaths where Covid-19 is mentioned on the death certificate, Wales had seen 7,821 deaths since the start of the pandemic. This is equivalent to 248.1 deaths for every 100,000 people in Wales. The equivalent figure for England is 129,394 deaths giving a comparable figure of 229.9 deaths per 100,000 people.

However Wales has an older population than England meaning that it is more vulnerable to Covid. If we use the internationally-recognised system for adjusting for age, what’s called an age-standardised mortality figure, things are very different. This method creates a comparable figure to show how many deaths a country would have had if it had the same percentage of people in each age group.

This gives these figures:

  • England – 217.1 deaths per 100,000 people
  • Wales – 212.4
  • Scotland – 173.8
  • Northern Ireland – 164.7

So Wales actually had a slightly lower death rate than England though not by much. However it was considerably worse than Scotland or Northern Ireland.

But if we look at excess deaths, which refers to the difference between the number of deaths registered over a set time compared with the average number of deaths for the same time period over the previous five years, Wales comes out much more favourably. According to the data, which is drawn from the Office for National Statistics, the amount of excess deaths per country was:

  • England: 14.5%
  • Wales: 11.7%
  • Scotland: 12.3%
  • Northern Ireland: 13.4%

While the raw data seems to suggest the Welsh Government performed best on this metric it is missing two very important things – context and luck. First let’s look at why England has a higher rate. Analysis from Public Health Wales suggests the reason for England’s higher rate is down to London having a significantly higher number of deaths at the very early stages of the first wave of the pandemic. Now of course you could argue that this was the UK Government’s responsibility, and therefore the blame lands with them, but this ignores the fact that Covid hit every UK nation and all four had a very similar first wave (as you can see from the graph below). It is hard to argue that if Covid had hit Edinburgh or Cardiff first the result would have been any different in either Scotland or Wales. England therefore had a higher first-wave rate but likely by virtue of having the largest and most internationally-connected city.

The amount of excess deaths per UK nation from March 2020 to the end of 2021. All UK nations ultimately had a similar first wave though Wales had a worse second wave. Scotland had lower peaks but a higher consitatn level of infection.

Second we need to look at when Wales’ excess deaths occurred. Wales had proportionally more excess deaths in the second wave of the pandemic (September 2020 to February 2021) than other parts of the UK. It is worth noting that this was the wave where the Welsh Government were in charge of the pandemic response in Wales. In the first wave they largely followed the UK Government’s lead in the early months.

The two charts tell the story. The one in blue illustrates the amount of deaths relative to population in the first wave and the one in green shows the second wave. As you can see in the wave where the Welsh Government were making the big calls there were more deaths in Wales than anywhere.

Neither the UK or Welsh Governments did well here. The overall impression may have changed significantly since the early days of the pandemic. The UK no longer appears an international outlier and several academic studies have shown that the death toll here was lower, when adjusted for population, than in the US, Spain, Portugal and Italy while being comparable with the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium. Yet there were also mistakes made, not least in the failure to bring in test and trace sooner and the stuttering early response to the pandemic. Other countries like France and Germany managed to have far fewer deaths.

This map from Our World In Data compares excess death rates across the world

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