The battle against coronavirus has frequently been likened to fighting a war, with Boris Johnson recently comparing vaccines to “Wellington’s Prussian allies coming through the woods on the afternoon of Waterloo”.

As if to prove the point, on Tuesday the BBC reported that Covid had caused excess deaths to rise to their highest level since the Second World War. But is that true?

There were nearly 697,000 deaths in the UK in 2020 – around 85,000 more than would be expected based on the average in the previous five years. 

The absolute number of deaths in 2020 was higher than almost any year of the 20th century, with one notable exception.

A total of 715,246 deaths were registered in 1918, amid the climax of the First World War and the onset of the Spanish flu. 

And the overall number of deaths in Britain during 2020 is higher than in any year during the Second World War, even before military deaths abroad are added. 

2020 saw the highest absolute number of deaths since 1918

Overall, excess deaths in 2020 were 14 per cent higher than would normally be expected, which is the highest yearly increase since 1940, when excess deaths rose by nearly 17 per cent from the previous year.

So at first glance it does appear that we had a dreadful death toll but it is not the full picture because it fails to take into account the growing and ageing population.

At the beginning of the 20th century there were around 40 million people living in the country. Now it has risen to more than 67.8 million.

If adjusted as a proportion of the population, 2020 had only the highest crude death rate since 2003. Last year, 10.3 people per 1,000 died, up from nine per 1,000 the previous year. 

In fact, since the 1880s just 18 years have had a lower death rate than 2020 when adjusted for population growth. 

Throughout the 80s the annual death rate hovered around 12 per 1,000, and at the beginning of the 20th century, when medicine was less advanced, it was around 17.

During the First World War, the average crude death rate was 14.6 and in 1940, at the peak of civilian casualties in the Second World War, it was 14.2.

Adjusted for population size, 2020 saw the highest death rate since 2000

The number of deaths in 2020 is also slightly inflated because it includes a “leap week”, with 53 weeks of data, while most years have 52, because of how New Year fell.

The current excess death figures released by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) have also been overestimating mortality, according to the Institute of the Faculty of Actuaries (IoFA) which has been monitoring the data in its Continuous Mortality Investigation (CMI).

They estimate that the ONS figures exaggerated deaths last year by around 15,000 because they fail to account for the growing and ageing population. The CMI claims the real excess figure is closer to 72,900.

The CMI team is made up of the heads of demographics and longevity at the likes of Lloyds Banking Group, Legal & General and Bupa, so their businesses depend on getting the figures right. 

Yet the CMI does accept that there has been an alarming annual increase between 2019 and 2020 the likes of which has not been seen for nearly a hundred years. “This is by far the highest annual increase in recent years, and the largest annual increase since 1929,” said Cobus Daneel, chair of the CMI mortality projections committee.

The scale of the rise in deaths in 2020 is also significant, alarming and notable because mortality rates have fallen significantly in recent decades, as a result of health interventions like statins, fewer people smoking, and better medical care. 

The 696,330 deaths registered up to January 1, 2021 was 15 per cent higher than the previous five year average (605,576) and is beaten only by two years since 1887.

In 1940, the second year of the Second World War, 16.8 per cent more deaths (673,253) were recorded than the average of the previous five years (576,303).

Excess deaths in 2020 not adjusted for population were the highest since World War II

And in 1918, with the culmination of the First World War and the onset of the Spanish flu, excess deaths were 16.6 per cent higher than the previous five-year average.

It is also almost certain that more deaths will be added to the total in coming weeks because of a lag in death registrations over the Christmas period. Latest ONS figures show a drop in deaths by 1,451 in the week running up to January 1. 

And it also worth noting that not all these excess deaths are from coronavirus. Many are people who failed to receive timely medical help as the NHS struggled to cope with the pandemic. 

Sadly the collateral damage to health may be seen in death rates for many years to come, even when the virus has all but vanished.