Will the second wave of coronavirus be more deadly than the first? How death rates and cases compare so far - and what experts predict

The most recent data suggests that the second coronavirus wave is playing out differently to the first

The second wave of coronavirus in the UK is less deadly than the first, according to a Financial Times analysis of the most recent Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures on excess deaths.

When comparing the number of excess deaths and the government’s daily death total for the most recent period with that of the first peak of the pandemic in March and April, the second wave appears less deadly than the first.

Sign up to our public interest bulletins - get the latest news on the Coronavirus

Sign up to our public interest bulletins - get the latest news on the Coronavirus

What does the data show?

Will the second wave of coronavirus be more deadly than the first? How death rates and cases compare so far - and what experts predict (Photo: Shutterstock)
Will the second wave of coronavirus be more deadly than the first? How death rates and cases compare so far - and what experts predict (Photo: Shutterstock)

According to ONS data, there were 996 excess deaths registered in the week ending 30 October, which compares favourably with the daily death figures for the same period. These show that 1,416 people had died after testing positive for Covid-19 in the week ending 26 October.

At the height of the pandemic, in March and April, the excess deaths figure tended to be twice the number of daily reported deaths, because relatively few people were able to get tested for the virus.

However, the most recent excess deaths figure was lower than the number of people whose death certificates mentioned coronavirus.

Why might the second wave be less deadly?

There are a number of potential explanations as to why the second wave of the virus seems to be less deadly than the first.

One major factor is the increased understanding among medical professionals of how to treat the virus, with the drug dexamethasone and other steroid medicines thought to be leading the way in reducing inflammation.

With greater experience of treating the disease, medics have also started to work out the optimum times to use different treatments. For instance, depending on which stage of illness a patient is at, it might be better to use blood thinners, to put them on a ventilator, or to place them in a prone position to increase oxygen intake.

It is also likely that changes to behaviour mean that those who are infected now are likely to have received lower doses of the virus, which often leads to less severe disease in many respiratory conditions.

ONS analysis also suggests that coronavirus is much more deadly than the flu, as it was recorded as the underlying cause of death in more than 85 per cent of cases where it was mentioned on the death certificate, whereas for flu the rate was 15 per cent.

Taking into account the most recent figures, there have been more than 70,000 excess deaths to date, meaning 70,000 more people have died than would usually in the same period of time.

The analysis also showed that, while there were a significant number of excess deaths taking place in care homes during the spring, the number of deaths so far in the second wave is no higher than an average year.

A more positive outcome than predicted

Taken with recent developments in the progress of a vaccine, these figures would seem to contradict earlier projections that the second wave could be more deadly than the first, due to a prolonged effect.

Last month, members of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) reportedly warned that the second wave would be worse than the first.

It was thought that, while the daily death rate might not rise to the level it peaked at in spring, the death rate would stay relatively high for longer, meaning it would be more deadly overall.