The number of people killed by coronavirus in London in the four weeks to 17 April has narrowly surpassed the number of civilians killed during the worst four-week period of aerial bombing of the city during the Blitz in World War Two.
Figures held in the National Archives, and collated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, show that 4,677 people were killed during the Blitz and buried in London cemeteries in the 28 days to 4 October 1940.
Registered deaths in London attributed to Covid-19, in the four weeks to 17 April this year, have now reached 4,697 according to a BBC count based on data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
The first of those four weeks – the week ending 27 March – came before the sharp rise in Covid-19 deaths took place. So figures released next week are expected to show a four-week tally considerably higher than that recorded during the Blitz.
“These are the best figures available for the civilian deaths in the Blitz,” said Richard Overy, professor of history at the University of Exeter.
“This dramatic war on civilians has come to symbolise the horrors of total war, with the images of burning and ruined buildings and bodies dug out from the rubble.”
“All the more poignant is the contrast with the current epidemic which has killed almost exactly the same number in 28 days in London’s hospitals and care homes.”
Registered deaths from all causes
Driven by the coronavirus outbreak, London has suffered its highest number of registered deaths in a single week for more than half a century, the ONS data shows.
There were 3,275 deaths from all causes registered in the capital in the week ending 17 April.
That’s the highest weekly number in London since January 1968, and the ONS says over half of all death certificates mention Covid-19.
In England and Wales, registered deaths in every region in the week to 17 April were the highest on record outside the winter months.
Normally the number of deaths is falling at this time of year, and is certainly substantially lower than at the height of flu season in the winter.
The numbers in London this month, in particular, are unprecedented for April. The figures for the week ending 17 April are more than three times higher than the average for the same week over the previous five years.
Professor Sally Sheard, Head of Public Health and Policy at the University of Liverpool, says it is not surprising that London has borne the brunt of the pandemic.
“There are similarities with how the 1918, 1957 and 1968 influenza pandemics moved through British communities, with urban areas again showing the biggest impact,” she says. “This reflects issues such as overcrowded housing and international travel patterns.”
“But the current urban focus of Covid-19 also reflects the more recent growth of the gig economy, in which people have multiple places of work and sites of interaction.”
England and Wales
The BBC has examined ONS and other government data for deaths in London going back to the 1940s, and data for the rest of England and Wales going back to 1993.
The ONS data is released weekly and records deaths in the community as well as deaths in hospital, so it paints a more comprehensive picture than the daily figures released by the Department of Health and Social Care (which largely focus on deaths in hospital).
And the table above shows that registered deaths in every region of England and Wales over the two weeks to 17 April are far higher than the average for those weeks.
The West Midlands and the East of England have recorded their highest weekly totals of any week since 1993. But other regions of England and Wales have experienced worse weeks during bad flu epidemics in January 1999 and January 2000.
‘Too early to tell’
One of the biggest issues for policymakers over the coming weeks will be to try to establish what other factors maybe causing the current surge in excess deaths.
Further deaths from Covid-19 will continue to happen around the country despite the lockdown.
But it will also be vital to establish how many deaths may be happening because of the lockdown, if people are not getting the treatment or support they need for other health conditions.
“The steep rise in figures for the capital is reflected in the levels of pressure we have seen on hospital intensive and critical care units and ambulance services in the region,” says Sarah Scobie from healthcare thinktank the Nuffield Trust.
“But it is too early to tell at this point whether deaths where Covid-19 was not mentioned are the result of some cases not being recognised as coronavirus, or a substantial increase in people dying from other conditions.
Other nations’ figures
National Records Scotland releases figures on a slightly different timescale. In the week to 26 April, there were 1,830 deaths registered in Scotland. That’s 68% higher than the five-year average for this week, of 1,087. Around a third of the death certificates mentioned Covid-19.
The Glasgow area has been by far the worst hit by the virus.
In Northern Ireland for the week ending 17 April there were 424 deaths registered, up from the five-year average of 290. Covid-19 was mentioned on 101 death certificates.
This piece has been updated to reflect the latest statistics.