Britain is in the grip of a new silent health crisis.
For 14 of the past 15 weeks, England and Wales have averaged around 1,000 extra deaths each week, none of which are due to Covid.
If the current trajectory continues, the number of non-Covid excess deaths will soon outstrip deaths from the virus this year – and be even more deadly than the omicron wave.
So what is going on? Experts believe decisions taken by the Government in the earliest stages of the pandemic may now be coming back to bite.
Policies that kept people indoors, scared them away from hospitals and deprived them of treatment and primary care are finally taking their toll.
Prof Robert Dingwall, of Nottingham Trent University, a former government adviser during the pandemic, said: “The picture seems very consistent with what some of us were suggesting from the beginning.
“We are beginning to see the deaths that result from delay and deferment of treatment for other conditions, like cancer and heart disease, and from those associated with poverty and deprivation.
“These come through more slowly – if cancer is not treated promptly, patients don't die immediately but do die in greater numbers more quickly than would otherwise be the case.”
The Government has admitted that the majority of the excess deaths appear to be from circulatory issues and diabetes – long-term, chronic conditions that can be fatal without adequate care.
Such conditions were also likely to have been exacerbated by lockdowns and work-from-home edicts that increased sedentary lifestyles and alcohol intake at a time when Britain was already facing historic levels of obesity and heart disease.
Dr Charles Levison, the chief executive of Doctorcall, a private GP service, said: “People really, really struggled and so many did not get the help they needed. That has caused lasting damage.
“It is time that we had a proper national debate about this, with a full government investigation.”
The latest fallout could not be hitting the NHS at a worse time, when it is struggling to bring down the pandemic treatment backlog and failing to meet targets across the board.
Figures released last week showed that a record 29,317 patients were forced to endure 12-hour waits in accident and emergency in July, a rise of a third in a month.
The number of 12-hour A&E waits rose 33 per cent in July, with a record spike of 7,283 – up from 22,034 the previous month. Before the pandemic, the figure for the same month was just 450.
Latest figures show that heart attack or stroke patients in England waited more than half an hour longer for an ambulance to arrive in July, compared with before the pandemic – crucial minutes that could prove fatal.
Dr Charmaine Griffiths, the chief executive at the British Heart Foundation, said: “Right now, too many people with heart conditions are facing dangerously long waits for potentially life saving cardiac care.
“Cardiovascular disease is one of the nation’s biggest killers but getting seen on time can be the difference between life and death.”
There is growing frustration among health professionals that little is being done to highlight the excess death problems. When a similar number of people were dying from Covid each week, there was a clamour for greater restrictions.
Prof Carl Heneghan, the director of the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine at Oxford University, said excess deaths began to increase noticeably from around the end of April. They have stayed high compared with the past seven years.
“The signals in the data suggest something is not quite right,” he said. “Sustained rises in deaths should trigger an investigation that may involve accessing the raw data on death certificates, a random sample of medical notes or analysing autopsies.
“I feel there is a lack of clear thinking at the moment and, when it comes to people’s health and wellbeing, you can’t wait – it’s unacceptable.”
Huge numbers of the excess deaths appear to be happening at home, with 681 recorded in the latest release by the Office for National Statistics on Tuesday – 28.1 per cent above what would usually be expected.
Some experts think the excess deaths may still be people whose health was weakened by a Covid infection, which is known to increase the risk of stroke and heart attacks.
Research has also shown that people who have recovered from a Covid infection are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Dr Adam Jacobs, the senior director of biostatistics at Premier Research, said: “It’s certainly possible that just allowing millions of people to be infected could have increased deaths from cardiovascular disease as an indirect effect of Covid.”
However, others believe the excess deaths are likely to be a complex response to government policies and restrictions to tackle the virus.
Dr Tom Jefferson, also of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, added: “Clearly, Covid is not really an issue any more and instead there appears to be an increase in cardiovascular events and diabetes which fits in with a more sedentary lifestyles brought about by the pandemic restrictions.
“Increased alcohol and food intake, not exercising enough, stress, not getting treatment can all lead to strokes and heart attacks. Then you ring the ambulance and it doesn’t come.”
This week, the Department of Health and Social Care finally admitted that it is concerned about the figures. The Office for Health Improvement and Disparities has been analysing the excess deaths.
It is understood the Government is concerned that a combination of long delays for ambulances and emergency care, coupled with people missing out on routine checks and treatment due to the Covid response, is behind the increase.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “Analysis is ongoing, however early investigation suggests circulatory diseases and diabetes may be partly responsible for the majority of excess deaths.
“The latest data highlight the importance of actively managing risks around heart issues as there is good evidence many of these deaths are potentially preventable.”
Getting to the bottom of what is behind the rise is likely to prove tricky, but it is imperative if we are to understand the true and lasting impact of policies to tackle Covid.
At the moment, the majority of excess deaths appear to be related to heart disease and diabetes, but it will only be a matter of time that people will start dying of longer-term conditions left untreated, such as cancer.
In July 2020, a government report warned that lockdowns could cause the deaths of 200,000 people because of delayed healthcare. At the time, those findings were largely ignored, as the Government was urged to press ahead with restrictions.
If that report holds true, the current excess deaths will be just the tip of the iceberg. Sadly, that iceberg was only too visible before we crashed into it.