Coronavirus was behind a record 45 per cent of deaths in England and Wales in the penultimate week of January, official figures revealed today.
Office for National Statistics (ONS) data shows Covid was mentioned on 8,422 death certificates in the seven days to January 22, the most recent data.
The grim data also marks the second deadliest week of the pandemic, with deaths involving the virus only higher at the peak of the first wave in April after mass outbreaks in care homes.
Covid deaths in care home residents also rose to their highest levels since May after 2,364 were registered, a 37 per cent increase on the previous week. The figure includes residents who died in hospitals and other settings.
The death figures published by the ONS are still rising because they are recording deaths from last month, after statisticians analyse each fatality to identify all those involving the virus.
But the Department of Health’s daily updates show the number of deaths due to the virus have since started to fall in line with plummeting infections, suggesting next week the ONS numbers may also show a drop.
There is a delay of about three weeks between someone getting infected with the virus and sadly succumbing to the disease, meaning it takes time for a dip in cases to show up in the deaths figures.
FIVE OUT OF 10 DEADLIEST WEEKS ON RECORD HAPPENED DURING THE PANDEMIC
Five of the 10 deadliest weeks ever recorded in England and Wales occurred during the pandemic, statistics show.
THE 10 DEADLIEST EVER WEEKS IN ENGLAND AND WALES, SINCE ONS RECORDS BEGAN
Number of deaths
There were 1,200 more deaths from coronavirus in the penultimate week of January compared to the previous week, a surge of 17 per cent. And the total number of deaths from all causes — around 18,600 — was the fifth highest on record.
The death toll was only higher over two weeks in April, when England and Wales were in the grips of the first wave and hospitals faced a mass influx of Covid-19 patients disrupting routine operations and procedures.
Five out of the ten deadliest weeks since records began have occurred during the pandemic.
The ONS added that overall there were 3,897 fatalities in care homes from all causes, which was also the highest level since May when 4,461 were registered in the week ending May 15.
All regions of England also recorded an increase in Covid deaths in the most recent week.
The highest number of deaths was in the South East, when 1,734 were recorded, followed by London, with 1,400, and the East, where 1,216 were registered.
The sharpest rise was in the South West, where deaths from the virus jumped by 35 per cent to 540, followed by the South East, up 23 per cent to 1,734, and the East Midlands, up 21 per cent to 605.
London had the highest proportion of all fatalities from coronavirus, at 57.9 per cent.
In Wales the number of deaths fell by 4.3 per cent compared to the previous week to 447, according to the ONS.
The nation has been under a lockdown since Boxing Day to curb the spread of the virus, whereas these draconian restrictions were not imposed in England until the new year.
Of deaths involving Covid-19 in 2020 and up to the third week of this year, 69 per cent occurred in hospital or 71,309 deaths.
Almost a third were in care homes, at 24,709, while the rest were in private homes, 5,188, hospices, 1,419, and other establishments.
Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, a statistician at the University of Cambridge said the figures showed there was a ‘substantial deficit’ of around 2,000 non-Covid deaths in the most recent week, or ‘around a sixth of the 12,000 that usually occur’.
‘This positive finding will be partly due to social distancing almost eliminating flu, but also because so many vulnerable people, who would have died this winter, have already been part of the 75,000 excess deaths in 2020.’
He added: ‘The major shift towards deaths in private homes continues to grow: Normally we would expect around 2,900 but 4,300 were registered, nearly 50 per cent extra. Around 900 of these extra deaths did not involve Covid.
‘Over 1,800 deaths with Covid were reported in care homes – even at the peak of the first wave, there were only three weeks in which this figure was exceeded.’
IS THE KENT VARIANT MORPHING AGAIN?
The Kent coronavirus variant has started to mutate further to become more like the one that evolved in South Africa in what scientists dubbed a ‘worrying development’ that could make vaccines less effective.
One of the key mutations on the South African variant appears to make the virus more able to resist immunity that has been developed by past Covid-19 infection or from the current vaccines.
And this mutation has now been found at least 11 times in different cases of people infected with the Kent variant, Public Health England revealed, meaning it could become a permanent feature of the British strain.
Both the Kent and South African variants already share one mutation, named N501Y, which makes the virus spread faster. And if this mutation, named E484K, sticks around as well the variants could become extremely similar.
E484K has been concerning scientists because it changes the shape of the virus’s outer spike protein in a way that makes it difficult for the body to recognise it if it is only used to looking for older versions of the virus without the mutation. This could raise the risk of reinfection or reduce how well vaccines work.
SAGE expert Professor Calum Semple suggested today that the risk of the Kent variant – and other versions of the virus – continuing to evolve was ‘inevitable’ and ‘will occur in time’, and this mutation would likely be part of that.
The devastating statistics come as No10 launched door-to-door testing in parts of England amid concern over cases of the South African variant being identified in people with no links to travel to the country.
Scientists are concerned that should the variant gain a foothold it could seriously hinder immunity against the virus triggered by jabs, and put the vulnerable more at risk.
The Government’s current whack-a-mole strategy is to snuff the variant out before it spreads further and becomes established in parts of the UK.
Families living in areas undergoing mass testing to try to weed out cases of the South African Covid variant have been told to ‘think twice’ about going out food shopping and to stay at home if they possibly can.
And the frantic door-to-door testing blitz may not stop the variant spreading because the 11 cases announced yesterday are just the ‘tip of the iceberg’, according to leading scientists.
None of the infected patients had travelled to South Africa, suggesting the strain could already spreading in the community.
The Government announced yesterday that it would aim to swab 80,000 people as quickly as possible in eight areas of England where cases of the variant have been discovered, to stop it from spreading further. Experts fear the strain may be able to evade immunity given by vaccines or increase the risk of people getting Covid for a second time.
People will not be told whether they are carrying the South African variant because this cannot be seen in a routine test, but the plan intends to find positive cases among people without symptoms in a bid to isolate them before they can infect others.
And officials have urged people living in those areas – in specific parts of London, Surrey, Midlands, Kent, Hertfordshire, Merseyside and Lancashire – to be extremely strict about lockdown rules. Tory MP and universities minister Michelle Donelan said: ‘Think again before you go about activities, even those within the rules such as essential shopping. Do you really need to go for that shopping or have you got enough in?’
But experts are sceptical about the testing scheme and say there are far more than 11 people infected with the strain already and that testing will slow it down, at best.