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‘Killer’ heatwave headlines in UK press not yet backed by official statistics warns ONS healthcare expert

By Sam Forsdick

A healthcare expert at the Office for National Statistics has warned that provisional death figures published by the authority do not support claims of a “killer heatwave” as covered in the UK national press.

Dailies the Daily Expressthe Mirror, and the Daily Star have referenced the ONS statistics in articles which claim a “killer” heatwave has caused a spike in the number of deaths in June and July in the UK.

The Express headline reads: “UK heatwave turns KILLER: 1,000 more people die this summer than average as temps soar.” The Mirror claims: “Nearly 1,000 more Brits than average have died since start of record summer heatwave.”

The number of registered deaths in England And Wales between 2 June and 20 July – the latest period for which figures are available – totals 73,586.

This is 995 higher than the five-year-average for the seven-week period, but claims that the heat is to blame is not supported by the data according to Nick Stripe, deputy director of health analysis at the ONS.

In a blog post, Stripe said: “It is impossible to tell from the data currently available to us how many people actually died during this period and how many of those deaths were as a result of the heat.

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“The provisional weekly deaths figures we release are based on the date the deaths were registered – not the date each person died.”

Although deaths should be registered within a five day period, Stripe said registration can be delayed by months if they are referred to a coroner.

This means that the latest figure of 995 more deaths could include those that happened weeks or months before the summer heatwave started and equally could miss deaths during it that are yet to be recorded.

A much higher number of deaths than the rolling five-year average used by the ONS was also recorded in the previous three years. In 2015 there were 3,516 more deaths across June and July. Details of the causes of death are not yet available.

“Later in the year we will be able to produce accurate figures by exact day of death which can be related to temperature if necessary,” said Stripe.

“Although the provisional data currently available appears to show a high number, it’s not really clear how meaningful this is.”

He said that while current data does not support claims in the UK press that the higher temperatures are to blame, a “spike in heat-related deaths can’t be ruled out yet”.

Warnings from Public Health England, which have been reported alongside the ONS statistics, said: “There is strong evidence that excess summer deaths… are the result of heat-related conditions.”

Stripe also warned against “complacency” and encouraged people to “keep an eye” on older people, young children and those with respiratory and cardiovascular diseases who are at greater risk during the hot weather.

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