Ross Clark

Could measures we’ve taken to stop Covid-19 already be saving lives?

Could measures we've taken to stop Covid-19 already be saving lives?
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Perspective is a bit in short supply at the moment but if you want a brief respite from the onslaught of bad news, take a look at these statistics. They are Office for National Statistics figures for the total numbers of deaths from respiratory diseases in England and Wales for February this year, compared with last year.

2019 2020
7 February 1,918 1,572 (-346)
14 February 1,931 1,586 (-345)
21 February 1,890 1,587 (-303)
28 February 1,786 1,517 (-269)

There are many influences on the level of deaths from respiratory disease: temperature, pollution levels and so on. They were even higher in 2018 when the country was gripped by the Beast from the East; in contrast February 2019 saw very mild and benign weather. It should also be noted that deaths this January were higher than in January 2019. Nevertheless, since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, deaths have been running at consistently lower levels than last year, to the tune of 250 to 300 a week. Presumably they will rise sharply in the weeks to come: so far we have had 104 deaths from coronavirus and in the words of the Chief Medical Officer we are now moving 'sharply up' the slope of the epidemic curve. Yet to date (or at least up until the end of February, which is the where the statistics currently stop) we have seen a net fall in deaths from respiratory disease.

There is a possible reason for this. The government has been issuing advice on coronavirus since the end of January. People with coughs and colds were asked to self-isolate. We were all advised to wash our hands and follow other personal hygiene advice. These measures not only protect against coronavirus but also against seasonal flu – which is still a big killer of the elderly and infirm even though there is a vaccine available.

Looking at the above figures, you wonder if some of the measures introduced to tackle the coronavirus crisis ought to become permanent. If everyone took more care to isolate themselves when they were suffering from any virus, and hand-washing became far more inbuilt into our daily lives, we might find ourselves saving a couple of hundred lives a week.

No one knows how many deaths are going to be caused by coronavirus over the next few months – though anything from 20,000 to 500,000 has been quoted in official estimates. But for the moment, the 104 deaths so far recorded appears to be dwarfed by the number of people who might normally be expected to be dying from respiratory diseases at this time of year.