1.5 million potential years of life lost to COVID-19 in the UK, with each life cut short by 10 years on average New analysis reveals ‘devastating’ scale of loss, with UK response ‘falling short in key areas’

23 March 2021

About 4 mins to read

New analysis from the Health Foundation's REAL Centre has set out the huge loss of life from COVID-19 one year on from the first lockdown.

With 146,000 deaths due to COVID-19 in the UK, up to 1.5 million potential years of life have been lost, with those who died losing up to 10 years of life on average. Almost three quarters of those who died were aged over 75, with people in this age group losing an average 6.5 years of life.

More years of men's lives have been lost in the pandemic than women’s (825,000 years of life lost in total for men, compared with 670,000 for women). Each man lost on average 10.4 years; each woman 10 years. While women have higher life expectancy, men have been up to around twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than women of the same age. 

People in the 20% most deprived parts of England were twice as likely to die from COVID-19 and they died at younger ages, so may have lost more years of life. While existing health inequalities mean these people may have had lower life expectancy, the analysis found that in total, 35% more lives were lost in the 20% most deprived areas than the least, with 45% more years of life lost in total.

When compared with flu, the researchers found that despite misconceptions early in the pandemic, COVID-19 has been much deadlier, even with full scale national lockdowns in place. In an average year around 30,000 people die from flu and pneumonia, with around 250,000 years of life lost. This is just a sixth of the years lost to COVID-19, or a quarter when comparing with deaths of over 75s.

It is now time for the Government to get serious about levelling up health with a coherent, comprehensive strategy for recovery backed by investment.

Dr Jennifer Dixon, Chief Executive of the Health Foundation, said:

‘The scale of loss the UK has experienced in the pandemic is devastating. Older people have been impacted most and those who have died and their families could have enjoyed many more years of life together.

‘The pandemic has severely tested governments around the world and while there have been successes in the UK’s approach, it has also fallen short in key areas. Inadequate protection of care home residents and health and care staff, delays to lockdown decisions, a shaky test and trace system. And deep-rooted inequalities in society have amplified the unequal impact of COVID-19. There will need to be a full public inquiry to make sure lessons are learned for the future.

‘Even before the pandemic, life expectancy was stalling in the UK more than in other European countries. The government must now tackle issues which injure health: poverty, unemployment, low quality work, poor housing, and taking stronger action on risk factors like tobacco, alcohol and obesity. Making progress cannot happen without a national cross-government strategy which includes more collaboration with and investment in local government.

‘COVID-19 has also exposed the lack of resilience in the NHS as the pandemic took hold, with major shortages in the workforce, critical and intensive care beds and equipment relative to comparable nations. There is now a huge backlog of care from unmet need and growing demand. The long overdue reform of social care means vulnerable people go without care they need, further adding pressure to the NHS. Without significant further investment from government in both the NHS and to fix social care, people will start to see deteriorating care quality and poorer health outcomes.

‘It is now time for the Government to get serious about levelling up health with a coherent, comprehensive strategy for recovery backed by investment.’

Further information

  • The analysis of years of life lost to COVID-19 was carried out by the Health Foundation’s REAL Centre (Research and Economic Analysis for the Long term).
  • Potential years of life lost is a way of estimating how long a person would have lived, had they not died from COVID-19. To calculate this, life tables are used. These show the life expectancy of each age group in the UK. For example, a man aged 80 in England in 2019 could expect to live 8.2 more years, a woman 9.7 years.  If a man aged 80 died from COVID-19 we therefore assume he ‘lost’ 8.2 years of life. 
  • The analysis was carried out using data from ONS, NRS and NISRA on deaths in the UK, registered up to 5 March 2021, where COVID-19 was mentioned on the death certificate. This figure is higher than the number of deaths within 28 days of a positive test, mainly because of differences during April and May 2020 when there was relatively little testing.
  • The analysis uses average life expectancies at each age. These may be overestimates as those who died from COVID-19 were more likely to have co-morbidities than their peers and may have had lower life expectancies. Our overall estimate should therefore be seen as an upper bound on the number of years of life lost from COVID-19. However, our estimates do not include the additional deaths that occurred during the pandemic but were not directly caused by COVID-19.
  • The analysis is based on areas in England classified by the Index of Multiple Deprivation.
  • The median age at which people died was between 80 and 84. People dying at this age lost on average 5.5 years of life.

Media contacts

Simon Perry
020 7257 2093

Sam Fletcher
07791 044 564

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