Chart of the week: Weekly deaths once again exceeding 20-year average during pandemic’s second wave

Each week we present analysis of data in chart form to illustrate some key issues and invite discussion. This week, as the second wave of coronavirus leads to the start of another major spike in overall deaths, John Appleby and Billy Palmer take a look at historic trends in weekly mortality and finds cause for concern.

Data story

Published: 03/12/2020

This week’s chart is further evidence that 2020 has been a very unusual year in this century.

While the huge spike in deaths this spring faded to relatively low numbers in the summer, the second Covid-19 wave has started to push the number of weekly deaths not seen at this time of year for decades. Taking account of year-on-year changes in the population, so far in 2020 (up to the week ending 20 November, and compared to the same period in previous years) total deaths are the highest they have been in the last 20 years.

At the peak of the first wave of the pandemic in mid-April, Covid-19 accounted for nearly 40% of all deaths. Even without these, there was still a (smallish) uptick in deaths compared to other years this century, but misclassification and the relative lack of coronavirus testing may mean that many of the ‘non-Covid’ deaths above the usual levels in April were in fact due to Covid-19.

Nevertheless, the latest death registration figures from the Office for National Statistics show numbers of Covid-19 deaths rising (from a relative low during the summer) to account for 22% of all deaths this week. Total deaths for the week ending 20 November are the highest they have been this century, 12% higher than the average of the last 20 years and over 17% higher than the same period last year.

Continued restrictions – including much-reduced international travel – will not only help with Covid-19, but will reduce the spread of other infectious diseases (particularly flu and other respiratory illnesses), which largely account for increased mortality in the winter. Covid-19 deaths are likely to continue to rise for a week or so beyond 20 November, but the path for all deaths through winter and into early spring remains uncertain.

The future will very much depend on the success of continued restrictions and the mass uptake of an effective vaccine.

Weekly deaths once again exceeding 20-year average during pandemic’s second wave 03/12/2020



Data up to mid-2019 are for date of occurrence rather than date registered. Trends by date of registration are susceptible to having relatively higher spikes due to under-reporting on bank holidays and subsequent catching up of these death registrations. For this reason, we have smoothed an artificial peak and trough between 2019 week 52 to 2020 week 2 where an average over this period is instead shown. Population data up to mid-2019 based on Office for National Statistics estimates with subsequent figures extrapolated using more contemporaneous data on the trend in patients registered at a general practice.


Nuffield Trust analysis of ONS, National Audit Office and NHS Digital data.

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