Deaths rates in England have fallen to the same level as in an average winter as the devastating impact of coronavirus wanes, the chief medical officer has said.
The number of Covid-related deaths has fallen sharply since a peak last month, and the number of people in hospital with the virus has fallen below 9,000, compared with more than 20,000 in mid-April.
Speaking at the government’s daily press conference, Prof Chris Whitty said: “All-cause mortality has come down at the same time as the Covid deaths have come down and it is now at roughly the rate it is at in an average winter. So we are essentially having a winter … in terms of mortality, but in late spring and early summer.”
The government’s official tally of UK coronavirus deaths now stands at 36,042, although the true figure is known to be more than 40,000.
Daily hospital deaths of patients with Covid-19 in England peaked at 891, according to official NHS figures. On 15 May, the most recent date for which there is reliable data, there were 152 hospital deaths, the lowest since March.
Some news headlines suggested significant numbers of NHS trusts, including six major London trusts, had gone 48 hours without any coronavirus deaths, but the reports were premature. As NHS England pointed out, the data for the past five days was incomplete and likely to be revised.
For example, NHS England’s 20 May release, which covered the previous day, showed zero deaths in the capital. But Thursday’s release shows that figure has been revised up to seven deaths on 19 May.
The NHS figures cover only hospital deaths. Deaths in care homes and other settings are not reflected, while the daily whole-of-UK figure only counts cases where the individual tested positive for Covid-19.
It means all the figures are undercounts, and a fuller picture for London and the rest of England and Wales will only be obtained when the Office for National Statistics (ONS) covers this week in its retrospective data collection, which it bases on death certificates.
Dr Jason Oke, from the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine and Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences at Oxford University, produced the figures based on trust data from Monday and Tuesday but accepted that new deaths could emerge.
He maintained that there was reason to be optimistic, however. “We are on the way out,” he said. “I think the continuation [of the downward trend] would make sense. And if there’s any effect from coming out of lockdown, which we are now, it’s probably at least a month away. So I’m thinking that downward trend will continue, that would be my guess, for a couple of weeks at least, and it [the daily number of deaths] possibly could get very low.”
On Thursday the ONS published its second snapshot of people with coronavirus in the community in England, finding that the number infected has remained stable in the last two weeks. It found that 137,000 people – 0.25% of the population – had coronavirus at any given time during the two weeks from 4-17 May.
The previous set of figures showed 148,000 were infected in England between 27 April and 10 May. The ONS said the difference was “relatively small and it should be interpreted that the number of people in England that have Covid-19 is relatively stable”.
Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said: “One concerning factor is that the rate does not seem to have declined much since the previous report, so does this mean that the decline in the epidemic is perhaps stalling as people start to get out more?
“Too early to say but we need to monitor this. Hospitalisations and deaths (rolling seven-day averages) from Covid-19 are still declining, though maybe not as rapidly over the past few days, so nothing to be too concerned about yet.”
The survey tested 14,599 people in 7,054 households, of whom 35 individuals in 32 households tested positive. The figures do not include people staying in hospital or care homes, where infections are likely to be higher.