England and Wales show a five per cent increase in mortality rates in just one year
England and Wales has suffered the biggest annual rise in deaths for almost fifty years, according to new figures which last night prompted warnings of an urgent crisis in care of the elderly.
Health experts last night called for an urgent investigation after statistics revealed a five per cent increase in mortality rates in just one year.
Advisors to Public Health England (PHE) warned of a “strong and flashing” warning light, and said trends over the last four years suggest the rise in deaths may now be the highest since World War Two.
They said the elderly were now bearing the brunt of a growing crisis in the NHS and cuts to social care, with women suffering the most.
The preliminary data from the Office of National Statistics shows that in just one year, there were 5.4 per cent more deaths in England – equating to almost 27,000 extra deaths.
The year-on-year rise, to a total of 528,340 deaths, is the highest since 1968. There were more deaths last year than any year since 2003. Figures show that numbers of deaths have fallen steadily since the 70s, but that trend began to reverse in 2011.
Public health experts last night said that when longer periods were examined, along with other factors – such as spikes in immigration of older people in the 1960s – the current trends appeared to be the worst since World War Two.
Professor Danny Dorling, from Oxford University, an advisor to PHE on older age life expectancy, said: “When we look at 2015, we are not just looking at one bad year. We have seen excessive mortality – especially among women – since 2012.
“I suspect the largest factor here is cuts to social services – to meals on wheels, to visits to the elderly.
“We have seen these changes during a period when the health service is in crisis, while social care services have been cut back.
“The statistics clearly show that this is the biggest rise we have seen since the 1960s. But this may well turn out to be the greatest rise since the second world war, taking into account the sustained nature of the rise, as well as other factors, such as the trend for immigration of older people in the 1960s.”
The figures come amid growing concern about failings in care of the elderly, with record levels of “bedblocking” in hospitals for want of basic help in the home.
Health officials said some of the spike in deaths last year might be explained by the failure of the flu vaccine last winter, which worked in just one in three cases.
But public health doctors said that the trends appeared to expose a deeper crisis.
Preliminary figures indicate there were 5.4 per cent more deaths in England in Wales in 2015 than in 2014, and 6.3 per cent more than the average of the preceding five years.
Professor Dominic Harrison, public health director in Blackburn with Darwen, who also advises PHE on life expectancy told Health Service Journal that the changes were a “strong and flashing” warning light which required investigation.
Senior figures said that falls in life expectancy among women in several parts of the country should be seen as a “canary in the mine,” because women were far more vulnerable to cuts in care, as they live longer.
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK said a full investigation was needed urgently.
“These figures suggests something is going badly wrong,” she said. “We owe it to older people to investigate why last year’s statistics are so unusually high and to take firm action to address the causes, whatever they may be.”
Latest figures suggest the number of days lost to “bedblocking” have risen by one quarter in England between 2011 and 2015.
Last week a report found that more NHS patients faced long trolley waits in Accident and Emergency this summer than has been the case in most recent winters.
Report authors said winter pressures had now become “the new normal” all year round.
Around 26,000 patients waited at least four hours on trolleys in August 2015, the study by the Nuffield Trust and the Health Foundation found.
This was more than the monthly peaks in four of the last five winters.
The report said the poor performance in the height of summer put health services in a difficult situation as this winter set in, which could mean services now suffer a “downward spiral”.
John Newton, PHE chief knowledge officer said it was important to “keep an open mind” about why the reasons behind the trends.
He said: “We have been monitoring changes in life expectancy and mortality in England… We find the statistics for older people fluctuate quite a bit from year to year and around the country. There is often no obvious pattern to this but it is clearly important to keep a close eye on the trends and consider a range of possible explanations.
“In 2015, the monthly death figures suggest that cold weather and flu may have played a part in the high numbers of deaths in the early part of the year. Changes in the population over time can also have some surprising effects on these statistics for technical reasons.”
A Department of Health spokesman said: “This is provisional data and our experts monitor deaths closely. Excess winter deaths can be due to a number of causes and deaths can fluctuate from year to year.
“We will continue to monitor this data closely and be advised by experts on any action necessary.”