Coronavirus was behind a record 45 per cent of deaths in England and Wales in the penultimate week of January, official figures reveal, after infections spiralled in the run-up to Christmas.
Office for National Statistics (ONS) data shows Covid-19 was mentioned on 8,422 death certificates in the seven days to January 22, the most recent data, almost half the 18,676 fatalities registered.
The grim statistics also mark the second deadliest week of the pandemic, with deaths involving the virus only higher at the peak of the first wave in April after mass outbreaks in care homes.
Covid-19 deaths in care home residents also rose to their highest levels since May, the figures show, after 2,364 were registered, a 37 per cent increase compared to the previous week. The figure includes residents who may have died in hospitals and other settings.
The spike during the first wave was driven by outbreaks in care homes, which were triggered after hundreds of patients potentially infected with Covid-19 were discharged from hospitals to free up beds. Homes have suffered almost a third of all deaths during the pandemic.
The death figures published by the ONS are still rising because they are recording deaths from last month, after statisticians go through each fatality with a fine-tooth-comb to identify all those involving the virus.
But the Department of Health’s daily updates show the number of deaths due to the virus are now starting to fall in line with plummeting infections, suggesting next week the ONS numbers will also show a drop.
There is a delay of about three weeks between someone getting infected with the virus and sadly succumbing to the disease, meaning it takes time for a dip in cases to show up in the deaths figures.
FIVE OUT OF 10 DEADLIEST WEEKS ON RECORD HAPPENED DURING THE PANDEMIC
Five of the 10 deadliest weeks ever recorded in England and Wales occurred during the pandemic, statistics show.
THE 10 DEADLIEST EVER WEEKS IN ENGLAND AND WALES, SINCE ONS RECORDS BEGAN
Number of deaths
The total number of deaths from all causes in the most recent week was the fifth highest on record, official data shows.
They were only higher over two weeks in April when England and Wales were in the grips of the first wave and hospitals faced a mass influx of Covid-19 patients disrupting routine operations and procedures.
And they were higher in January 2000, when 20,566 were recorded, and January 1999, when 20,116 were registered.
Five out of the ten deadliest weeks since records began have occurred during the pandemic.
The ONS added that overall there were 3,897 fatalities in care homes from all causes, which was also the highest level since May when 4,461 were registered in the week ending May 15.
All regions of England also recorded an increase in Covid-19 deaths in the most recent week.
The highest number of Covid-19 deaths was in the South East, when 1,734 were recorded, followed by London, with 1,400, and the East, where 1,216 were registered.
The sharpest rise was in the South West, where deaths from the virus jumped by 35 per cent to 540, followed by the South East, up 23 per cent to 1,734, and the East Midlands, up 21 per cent to 605.
London had the highest proportion of all fatalities from coronavirus, at 57.9 per cent.
In Wales the number of deaths fell by 4.3 per cent compared to the previous week to 447, according to the ONS.
The nation has been under a lockdown since Boxing day to curb the spread of the virus, whereas these draconian restrictions were not imposed in England until the new year.
Of deaths involving Covid-19 in 2020 and up to the third week of this year, 69 per cent occurred in hospital or 71,309 deaths.
Almost a third were in care homes, at 24,709, while the rest were in private homes, 5,188, hospices, 1,419, and other establishments.
Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, a statistician at the University of Cambridge said the figures showed there was a ‘substantial deficit’ of around 2,000 non-Covid deaths in the most recent week, or ‘around a sixth of the 12,000 that usually occur’.
‘This positive finding will be partly due to social distancing almost eliminating flu, but also because so many vulnerable people, who would have died this winter, have already been part of the 75,000 excess deaths in 2020.’
He added: ‘The major shift towards deaths in private homes continues to grow: Normally we would expect around 2,900 but 4,300 were registered, nearly 50 per cent extra. Around 900 of these extra deaths did not involve Covid.
‘Over 1,800 deaths with Covid were reported in care homes – even at the peak of the first wave, there were only three weeks in which this figure was exceeded.’
The devastating statistics come as Britain launches door-to-door testing in parts of England amid concern over cases of the South African variant being identified in people with no links to travel to the country.
Scientists are concerned that should the variant gain a foothold it could seriously hinder immunity against the virus triggered by jabs, and put the vulnerable more at risk.
The Government’s current whack-a-mole strategy is to snuff the variant out before it spreads further and becomes established in parts of the UK.