Three years down the line from when Covid first hit our consciousness and with the release of more time series data in digestible form some lessons can be learned from the Government’s capitulation to the ‘blob’s’ panicked measures in early 2020.
Undoubtedly the ‘one size fits all’ approach of Government at the start of the pandemic led to unnecessary deaths. I suspect the extent of these unnecessary excess deaths skewed the perception of many people about the risk they faced from Covid and also skewed the data which led, in turn, to bad decisions.
Back in March 2020, in anticipation of a wave of ill people it was decided to empty the hospitals. Go walk around a hospital, it’s full of ill people, they’re there for a reason. In England we expect about 225,000 people to die in hospital in any given year. The data in Table 1 come from my new favourite website produced by the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (its staff have got their work cut out!). They show deaths in English hospitals over the past three years.
One of the oddities of the data is that deaths with Covid are so much higher than excess deaths. In 2020 there were three times more Covid deaths than excess deaths. In 2021 there were 2.7 times more Covid deaths than excess deaths and in 2022 the figure was 1.75 times greater. Can it be true that in the absence of Covid we would have had so many fewer deaths than normal?
It’s often stated, and certainly I would suggest that the man on the Clapham omnibus would think, that hospitals were overrun during the first lockdown in spring 2020. This is only true to the extent that two things happened that massively reduced capacity: we socially distanced the beds, reducing the overall capacity in the hospitals and staff absences went up due to self-isolation or illness. Of course, we built the Nightingale hospitals but these were never brought into service.
Figure 2 shows two charts. The top one shows the percentage of the average General and Acute (G&A) hospital bed occupancy by NHS trusts during April 2020. The lower one shows average critical care bed occupancy during April 2020. Due to space I’ve only named every fifth NHS trust but if you want to look at the data for your local trust you can find them here.