THE current death rate in England and Wales is running about one-third higher than its normal rate for this time of year, official statistics show, despite the fact that the winter thus far has been no worse than usual.
In the two weeks ending on 23 January, 28,000 people died, the Office for National Statistics figures show. Over the previous five years, the average number of deaths for the same period stood at about 21,000.
Some experts say flu could be the driving force, as this winter’s prevalent strain particularly hits the elderly.
Prof John Newton, chief knowledge officer at Public Health England (PHE), which monitors death rates, said there had been a substantial increase in the numbers since Christmas. Although it was less apparent from the raw data, PHE’s own analysis has found that – even taking the season into account – deaths among elderly people have now been significantly elevated for six weeks.
The death rate has risen by 3,700 people a week since early December. Of that more than 3,000 are accounted for by over-75s.
The usual key causes of excess winter deaths are cold weather, influenza and gastrointestinal infection.
According to PHE statistics, both GPs and hospitals are spending much more time dealing with flu than they did last year, despite a similar vaccination rate among the key target groups.
Furthermore, the H3N2 sub-type – a prevalent flu virus at the moment – takes a particular strain on elderly people.
However, this year, the proportion of vulnerable people who were vaccinated was the same as last year. Prof Newton said PHE tries to anticipate sub-types of the virus that will be circulating to ensure it can be vaccinated against. ‘This year, it is the right type,’ he said.
There is only one thing that the establishment is absolutely certain about. This is that the increase in the death rate is not in any way due to the massive NHS budget cuts, and the coalition crusade that is now in full cry to close scores of A&E and Maternity units!
The BMA has published its analysis of NHS England’s latest statistics on the NHS 111 phone line.
The BMA found that ‘The number of calls referred to GP services from NHS 111 rose by 186 per cent when comparing January-October 2013 to January-October 2014, from 2,844,452 to 8,138,863 – an increase of 5,294,411.’ A fantastic increase in just one year!
The BMA continues: ‘The number of calls referred to A&E services from NHS 111 rose by 192 per cent when comparing January-October 2013 to January-October 2014, from 374,506 to 1,092,967 – an increase of 718,461.’
The BMA concludes that it ‘has consistently highlighted serious concerns about NHS 111 and how it is not delivering appropriate advice and outcomes for patients who call the service.
‘Before it was launched in March 2013, the BMA’s GP committee warned that it would struggle to cope with demand, a prediction that proved to be correct when large parts of the system collapsed immediately after they opened.’
Dr Mark Porter, BMA Chair of Council added: ‘A fundamental problem with NHS 111 is that it employs non-clinically trained staff who follow a formulaic script rather than using clinical judgement to assess how calls are dealt with. Understandably this is likely to lead the call handlers, with limited experience of medicine, to be cautious and refer patients to the NHS when a trained professional could have encouraged them to effectively self-care.’
It is true that untrained people working to a script cannot diagnose what is wrong with the patient, and are apt to be cautious since they do not want to have the responsibility for an avoidable death.
However, this does not explain the enormous leap in demand.
If there is no ready access to A&Es and GPs, and all around the NHS is being demolished, millions have nowhere to go, except to dial 111.
The NHS cuts that are taking place must be stopped, and A&Es must be reopened if the death rate is not to advance to ever greater records.
The answer to the NHS crisis is definitely not advising the sick to practice ‘self care’!