Britain is, of course, in the middle of a deadly pandemic of a novel infectious disease. It’s just that it is not, at present, killing remotely as many people in England and Wales as that boring old disease which no-one seems ever to worry about: the summer flu. Winter flu, yes – sometimes we worry about that overwhelming the NHS. We take the precaution of vaccination the elderly and other vulnerable groups. But the summer flu? It hardly registers.
Yet few seem to have noticed, while we fret about whether reopening schools, bars and so on will cause a second wave of Covid-19, that flu is killing five times as many people in England and Wales. In the week ending 31 July, these are the Office for National Statistics tallies for cause of death (as measured by mentions on death certificates): influenza and pneumonia, 928; Covid-19, 193. This is nothing new: more people have been dying of flu than Covid-19 since the middle of June.
There is a certain amount of double-counting going on here: some people who have been recorded as a Covid-19 death may also have fallen into the category ‘influenza and pneumonia’ – given that, as with flu, it is often pneumonia which actually delivers the final blow. But even if all those 193 Covid deaths were also being counted in the ‘influenza and pneumonia’ column, it stands to reason that more people are dying of non-Covid related pneumonia than are dying of Covid-19.
Should we start worrying about a pandemic of summer flu instead? Perhaps not, for the simple reason that while flu deaths are running at about five times Covid-19 levels, they are markedly down on the average of the past five years. A mean of 1,394 people have died of influenza and pneumonia in the last week of July over the past five years – 50 per cent more than died this year.
That is almost certainly a reflection of how effective social distancing has been in preventing flu deaths. But it does also show that social distancing, lockdown and so on cannot be wholly responsible for the sharp fall in deaths from Covid-19 since April. Given that flu is spread in much the same way as Covid-19, why haven’t flu deaths fallen as sharply as Covid-19 deaths in reaction to lockdown measures? It rather suggests that something else has contributed to the fall in deaths from Covid-19. Herd immunity? A decline in the virulence of the virus? It does rather pose the question: why are we still placing serious restrictions on the economy and on personal freedom when Covid deaths are so much lower than deaths from the ordinary flu?
It shows the sheer power of publishing a daily death toll. People are still paranoid about Covid-19 because they keep being fed with figures suggesting that dozens of people have died of Covid in the past 24 hours and they have no means of putting it into context. There is a simple way out of the Covid-19 crisis, which as we found out today has led to a sharp plunge in employment, and, as we will find out tomorrow, has shrunk the economy by a record figure – not a vaccine, but simply to stop feeding public fear with daily Covid 19-death tolls. Either stop publishing them – or publish them in conjunction with a daily toll of deaths from all causes.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.