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30 April 2021

Exclusive: Covid-19 robbed a decade of life from the average victim in England and Wales

Each victim of coronavirus in England and Wales would on average have lived a further nine years and six months. 

By Ben van der Merwe and Josh Rayman

 

Five hundred and one days since the first Covid-19 patients were admitted to a Wuhan hospital, the pandemic has claimed 137,420 lives in England and Wales. Some were young, many were old. All had much to live for.

We will never know the path each life might have taken if not for Covid-19, how many years were stolen from friends and family.

We can, however, offer a general picture.

Accounting for age, sex and co-morbidities, exclusive analysis by the New Statesman estimates that each victim of the virus in England and Wales would have lived, on average, a further nine years and six months – collectively adding up to a staggering 1.3 million years of life lost. (Requisite data for Scotland and Northern Ireland was not available.)

The scale of human loss wrought by the pandemic is difficult to fathom. We are not designed to visualise large numbers. Charts aid the perception of trends and relationships, but often obscure sheer scale.

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If the numbers are difficult to comprehend, it is often easier to dismiss them altogether. “They would have died anyway,” some have argued, given the majority of deaths occurred among the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions.

In an attempt to overcome these challenges, the New Statesman has taken every victim of the virus in England and Wales and produced an informed estimate of how long they might have otherwise lived.

The result is a more vivid picture of the lost than is typically provided by the charts and numbers that have flooded our screens this past year.

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Each line represents the arc of a life cut short by Covid-19. The length of the arc on the left-hand side represents the years this person lived, while its length on the right-hand side shows just how long they might have lived if not for the virus. Two weeks’ worth of deaths is displayed at any one time. The New Statesman’s methodology is explained at the end of this article.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

First wave

For two months, Britain watched as a mysterious virus overwhelmed healthcare systems in China, Iran and Italy. Cases soon began to appear in York and Brighton, but authorities downplayed the risk. Only on 23 March did the government order citizens to stay at home, with legislation forcing non-essential businesses to close coming into force three days later.

By that time, the virus was already spreading exponentially. Soon, shops were forced to ration food and toiletries, while care homes and hospitals struggled to access protective masks and gowns.

For two weeks in April, England and Wales saw an average of 1,185 deaths from the virus every day – one every 73 seconds. Eight years of life were taken every minute.

Breathing space

With lockdown in place and the weather warming, the UK was eventually able to control the spread. Cases and deaths began to fall, raising hopes that the country had seen off the worst of the pandemic.

Pubs and hairdressers reopened, albeit with new safety measures in place. The government encouraged citizens, many of whom were still anxious about the risk, to return to high streets by subsidising restaurant meals.

However, the virus never went away. Even at the pandemic’s lowest ebb, the UK was still seeing an average of seven deaths per day.

Second wave

The loosening of restrictions soon undid this progress, helping to accelerate a second wave. Despite scientific advisers warning in September of “catastrophic consequences” if the country was not returned to lockdown, the government dithered, only imposing a second national lockdown on England on 5 November.

From mid-November to mid-December, more than 400 people in the UK died every day from the virus. Yet the government lifted the English lockdown on 2 December, replacing it with a tier system, and continued to insist that further relaxations for Christmas would go ahead. The Prime Minister is alleged to have said that he would rather see “bodies pile high in their thousands” than order another national lockdown.

Less than a week before Christmas, however, the spread of Covid-19 began to rapidly accelerate – possibly due to a mutant strain first spotted in Kent months earlier. The government was forced to raise restrictions in London and the south-east, and by January had instituted a third national lockdown in England. Daily deaths soon surpassed the spring 2020 peak, with one fortnight in January seeing an average of 1,204 people dying each day.

The beginning of the end?

The renewed lockdown was able to reduce the spread of the virus, causing the number of daily deaths to fall throughout February and March.

The roll-out of vaccines, which had begun in December, further reduced the number of deaths. By 19 March, more than half the UK’s adult population had received their first vaccine dose.

By the end of April, a quarter of the UK population was fully vaccinated, with close to two-thirds having received their first dose.

 
 

The number of deaths occurring in the UK each day is now far smaller than what it once was, or could have been in the absence of lockdowns and vaccinations. Yet more than 20 people are still dying from the virus every day in the UK, their deaths no less tragic for those left behind.

Last March, as a trickle of deaths became a flood, each victim was rapidly submerged in a sea of anonymous statistics. When Covid-19 relented over the summer, the reduction in deaths did not return humanity to the daily victims. On the contrary, they became practically invisible.

In the chart below, each bar shows an individual life lost to the pandemic in England and Wales. The left-hand side shows the years they lived, while the right shows how long they might have lived if not for Covid-19. Each person’s estimated lifespan takes into account their age and sex, as well as the likelihood that someone of their description suffered from co-morbidities. The full methodology is explained at the end of this article.

You can interact with the bars, or just watch them go by. It would take more than three days to show all the victims.

 

 

Geeta

While the average victim of Covid-19 lost almost a decade of life, many lost far more. Almost 3,000 people under the age of 50 have died from the disease in England and Wales, losing an average of 40 years.

Geeta Kalsi, 45, was one of 1,401 deaths recorded on 22 January, at the height of the UK’s winter peak.

“She was the most lively, active person you’d ever meet in your life,” says her husband, Harjinder. “She was like a hurricane – she never stopped working, doing something. We actually met when she was chasing a shoplifter – I was the police community support officer dispatched to the Tesco where she worked, and had to tell her off because he could have been armed.”

After marrying in 2010, Geeta and her husband discovered they were too old to conceive naturally. They spent 2020 going through the adoption process via Zoom, and were finally approved in October. In January, while still waiting to be matched with a child, both of them tested positive for Covid-19.


Harjinder and Geeta

Soon, Geeta started to have trouble breathing and was taken to hospital. “I thought she’d be fine,” Harjinder says. “Never in a million years did I think that’d be the last time I’d see her. She walked to the ambulance, got in the ambulance. I kind of waved to her and closed the door. I didn’t even think anything of it.”

A few days later, the hospital rang Harjinder to tell him she was being intubated. She was panicking when he called her, unable to speak as she was connected to a CPAP machine.

“At 4pm, they contacted me to go up to the hospital. I got there for 4.15pm, but she’d already passed.”

Now, Harjinder lives alone in the four-bedroom house they had spent the last year redecorating, complete with a nursery.

“It should have been a family home. Covid has not only taken my wife, it’s taken my family. Every future prospect that was mapped out for us disappeared the day she passed. It’s taken everything from me. Absolutely everything,” he says.

“The way I see Covid is it doesn’t just take life, it takes death. You can’t go and hold your family members, friends – anybody. It’s that cruel.”

“No other disease in our lifetimes has required hospitals to be emptied almost entirely of visitors, leaving dying patients in their thousands cut off from those they love most,” says Dr Rachel Clarke, a palliative care doctor seconded to Covid wards in Oxford during the pandemic, and author of Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a Time of Pandemic.

“Then there is the inhumanity of PPE. It is staggering to consider that for patients who die from Covid, from the moment they enter a hospital they are destined never to see a single human face again. Everyone is barricaded behind masks and visors. No smiles, no lips, no ungloved hands. 

“NHS and care staff have done their utmost to ensure we are there at the bedside, holding those hands, witnessing those final breaths – but we cannot replace family, and it haunts us to know that our patients have died without their loved ones comforting them in person.”

Harjinder is now raising money for Adoption Focus, a West Midlands adoption charity, in his wife’s honour. “All she ever wanted was to be a mum, and to hold a child in her hands and know it was hers – and she never got to do that,” he says. “This way, she’s becoming a parent to hundreds of children out there.”

 

Olufemi

While some have lost the chance to start families, many more have lost the opportunity to see their children leave home, graduate or start families of their own. More than 20,000 have died within five years of the statutory retirement age, losing an average of 16 years and six months of life.

For two years after his wife and three young children moved to Leamington Spa in 1997, Olufemi Akinolla (known as Femi) stayed in Nigeria to look after his engineering business.

His son Lobby remembers the day his father moved to join the family in the UK – his mother had kept it a secret.

“It was like a movie moment,” he recalls. “Me and my sister were playing in the park, and I looked up and there was this tall black man standing there. I just remember this swell of emotion like ‘that’s my dad’. We just got up and started running.”

Femi went from running his own company in Nigeria to selling gas door-to-door in the UK. “It wasn’t like things just magically got easier, but he had this ability to make you feel safe, to feel that no matter what happens it’s going to be OK,” says Lobby.

Femi later became a carer for the charity Mencap, visiting people with learning difficulties, and bought an allotment.

“He loved his job,” says Lobby. “He loved talking to people and getting to know them. He was just a very caring man. He really, really loved being a dad.

“He was also such a sharp guy. My sister did a law degree and she’d come to him for help, and come the afternoon he’d be sat there talking to her as if he’d been studying law his whole life.”

Femi and his wife Atinuke (known as Tinu) had planned to go to Paris for their 31st wedding anniversary last June, having missed the chance to celebrate their 30th the year before. “They were just starting to get to the point where they were like, ‘our kids are grown up now, so we can do our own thing again’,” says Lobby.


Atinuke and Olufemi

He recalls his mother telling him his parents were “falling in love again”.

When Covid-19 arrived in Britain, they were forced to cancel their trip. Even when the pandemic hit and the government were still suggesting the risk was low, Femi took it seriously. Without PPE, he had to do his care visits with just his winter gloves on and a scarf over his face instead.

“He was constantly telling us that we couldn’t enter the house without washing our hands,” says Lobby. “He did everything right, everything he possibly could, and he still caught the virus.”

Femi, aged 60, fell ill, yet three calls to 111 resulted in instructions to stay at home. One day, he appeared to be improving. Lobby recalls Tinu saying that she went to bed that night thinking, “Thank God we’ve gotten through this and death hasn’t arrived at my door.” The next day, she woke up to find her husband of three decades dead on the sofa.

“My mum has lost everything she was looking forward to. She’s lost her partner, her confidante, her support, the person who makes her laugh, the person who she makes coffee for in the morning,” says Lobby.

This year, Lobby will turn 30 and his brothers will have their 21st and 18th birthdays – they used to joke to their parents that 2021 would be the year when they could finally say they had seen all their children through to adulthood. “I feel like he died just before the finishing line,” says Lobby.

“When anybody loses anybody they realise that you would take minutes, you would take seconds, you would take any amount of time – literally any more time with that person.”

“The grief and trauma of losing someone you love dearly is the very furthest thing from a neat and rational package of pain, apportioned according to how long they have lived,” says Dr Clarke. “If you have been married to someone for 60 years, for example, the heartbreak of losing them is shattering, unimaginable. They are no less loved – perhaps more so.”

 

Stuart

Stuart Goodman was 72 when he died from Covid-19. “I wanted him to live to 80,” says his daughter Jo. “I thought that he could – although that would have been a stretch for him because of his health conditions.”

A well-known Fleet Street photojournalist in the Eighties, Stuart retired to Norfolk in the mid-1990s after a spate of ill-health. “I think he used to smoke about 60 cigarettes a day and drink quite a lot – an old-school Fleet Street kind of thing,” says Jo.

“He was just the warmest, funniest, most incredible person to be around, but he didn’t push himself a lot after he left Fleet Street.”


Stuart

In 2018, two publishers who had happened across some of his old photos of east London’s iconic Broadway Market, taken before its regeneration, contacted him about releasing a book of his work. “It was just the most incredible thing seeing dad getting recognised for his work and seeing it all kind of fall into place,” says Jo.

A few months later, in March 2019, Stuart almost died from heart failure and had to have a quadruple heart bypass. “He had this real motivation after the heart surgery,” says Jo. “The book was going to happen, he was going to start doing walking football. He was so motivated – he ended up losing a lot of weight.”

Just weeks before the book launch, however, Covid-19 swept Britain and Stuart was forced to cancel. A few days later, he was told there was a cancerous tumour on his spleen and it was aggressive. As he returned home from the hospital, the first copies of his book arrived from the publishers.

Possibly contracting the virus during his cancer diagnosis, Stuart soon became seriously ill and was hospitalised with Covid-19, unable to receive the compliments of friends and family as his book landed on their doorsteps.

“Since he’d left Fleet Street he hadn’t really had that level of recognition,” reflects Jo. “Watching my dad launch his book and show the skill of his photography, but also just be his witty, larger-than-life self… It would have been just a really incredible moment.

“Losing him to Covid, it felt like he became just a number on a graph – and because he was over 70 and he had underlying health conditions that somehow it’s OK. This wasn’t someone who was just sitting around waiting to die.”

With the roll-out of vaccines proceeding apace, the end of the pandemic in the UK may be in sight. For those who have lost loved ones to the virus, however, there will be no return to normality.


 

Methodology

To estimate the number of years lost to Covid-19, the New Statesman first used data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to produce a preliminary model of each person’s life expectancy, based on their age and sex. 

Only deaths in England and Wales were included, as data for Scotland and Northern Ireland lacked the detail necessary to produce reasonable life expectancy estimates. Deaths were based on the mention of Covid-19 in death certificates. Deaths were dated by their registration, rather than occurrence, since occurrence-based data for recent months is not yet available.

Many of the victims would have had shorter life expectancies than average for their age, however, due to co-morbidities such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. While the ONS has collected data on the prevalence of co-morbidities among UK fatalities, the data does not shed light on the frequency of their co-occurrence.

Instead, care home residency was used as a proxy indicator of co-morbidities. Each individual was probabilistically classified as either a care home resident or non-resident, based on ONS data on the proportion of Covid-19 deaths occurring in care homes by age group and sex.  

The life expectancy of care home residents was revised downwards, depending on their age and sex, based on data from a study comparing the life expectancy of Scottish care home residents and non-residents.

Finally, based on their hypothetical life expectancy, the New Statesman probabilistically assigned each individual a hypothetical cause of death, using ONS data on the leading causes of death by age, group and sex.

This resulted in an estimate of 1.3 million years of life lost. This was more conservative than the estimate which was produced by using the ONS data on co-morbidities (1.47 million), which assumed random co-occurrence of co-morbidities.

The mean number of years lost was found to be 9.9 for men and 8.9 for women. This is a slightly more conservative estimate than that found in a Wellcome Trust study of UK deaths, a study which had access to much more detailed data on the prevalence and co-occurrence of co-morbidities and was therefore able to control for co-morbidities without the use of care home residence as a proxy. This study estimated mean years of life lost to be 11.6 and 9.4 for men and women, respectively.

The purpose of the model was to provide a reasonable estimate of the overall years of life lost due to Covid-19 in England and Wales, rather than to provide forecasts for individuals. For instance, the proxy for co-morbidities, care home residency, was assigned probabilistically based on age group and sex, not based on individuals’ actual care home status or health condition. The reason for presenting the model’s individual-level data, in addition to its aggregate-level results, is to give a more humanised picture of the death toll and the distribution of years lost.

 

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