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Why it’s a dangerous myth to claim that only 17,000 people died of Covid

The argument that patients who had pre-existing conditions did not die of coronavirus is both inaccurate and insulting.

By George Eaton

The UK does not have a good record on Covid-19. As I write, the death toll stands at 153,862 based on the most popular measure (deaths within 28 days of a positive test), or 175,256 (deaths with Covid-19 on the death certificate). Whichever metric is used, the UK has endured one of the highest death rates of any major Western country.

But Covid-sceptic commentators are now brandishing proof that this is a wild exaggeration.

The Office for National Statistics recently revealed in response to a freedom of information request that the number of Covid-19 deaths in England and Wales with no other underlying causes stood at 17,371 (as of September 2021).

“The political and media establishment have got it all wrong when it comes to the scare campaign around Covid,” declared GB News presenter Dan Wootton. “The media talks a lot of the 150,000 deaths, perhaps they should have been talking about the number of people who died of Covid, not with Covid. That was just 17,371. Of course that remains a tragic number of deaths but it is far more comparable with a normal winter flu season.” 

His colleague Nigel Farage similarly commented: “We have just been through two years of on-off lockdown, of our rights and privileges being taken away, of, perhaps, many people not being diagnosed for upcoming, serious diseases and we find out that only 17,000 people have died with or of Covid with no other underlying conditions. I think we need to have a proper debate about this.” 

So is the true number of Covid deaths just 17,371? (A not insignificant total.) Were the national lockdowns entirely pointless? Are the media and politicians engaged in a scare campaign? In short, no. 

The ONS has long distinguished between deaths “due to Covid” and deaths “involving Covid”. If we use the former measure, which covers only those deaths in which coronavirus is listed as an underlying cause, the total number for England and Wales is not 17,371 but 141,722 (as of 8 January). In other words, the overwhelming majority of people died from Covid, not merely with it. 

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The logic of the argument that anyone with a pre-existing condition did not die of Covid is that they were already close to death. But if you examine the top 20 pre-existing conditions for Covid deaths – as most commentators do not – it becomes clear why this is absurd.

The list includes conditions that millions of people in the UK live with: high blood pressure, asthma and other chronic respiratory diseases, obesity and diabetes. Indeed, you or someone you know most likely has at least one of them. If they contracted Covid-19 and sadly died, would you conclude that coronavirus did not kill them? In most cases you would not – and neither do medical staff. 

If Covid-19 was not primarily responsible for the deaths of coronavirus patients, why did the UK suffer the highest number of excess deaths since the Second World War in 2020? Some may contend that an unusually high number of people with pre-existing conditions suffered unusually bad luck that year. But a more plausible explanation is that the worst pandemic for a century was responsible. Indeed, the estimated number of excess deaths during the pandemic – 151,000 – is strikingly close to the UK’s official Covid-19 death toll. 

While a pre-existing condition makes someone more vulnerable to coronavirus, the implication that the majority of victims were already at death’s door is both inaccurate and insulting. Intensive care reports for patients admitted since May 2021 show that 89.5 per cent were able to live without assistance in daily activities. Only 10 per cent required some assistance and a mere 0.4 per cent required total assistance.

Had it not been for Covid-19, most patients would have survived and continued to enjoy independent lives. As a harrowing New Statesman investigation has previously found, each victim of coronavirus in England and Wales would on average have lived a further nine years and six months. To suggest that coronavirus did not kill them is to imply that their lives were all but over – they were not. Had the UK government made different policy choices – such as an early lockdown in March 2020 – their lives could have been saved.

As the Omicron crisis recedes, the UK must reckon with the grave consequences of both the virus and the lockdowns. Legitimate arguments can be made for and against the government’s decisions – but there is no place for statistical manipulation that minimises the scale of the Covid catastrophe.

[See also: How vaccines have dramatically reduced Covid-19 deaths in the UK]

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