by Martin Odoni

I have been meaning to write this article for weeks, and I was only reminded to do it when listening to callers on a radio phone-in today. I suppose I should thank them therefore, but I do not think they deserve it. They want the current UK lockdown against the Covid-19 Coronavirus lifted with immediate effect, and one of the grounds for this argument is that, “The flu kills thousands every year and no one bats an eyelid, so why panic about this?” or words to that effect.

Firstly, this is clearly nonsense even when studied at face-value. Every winter, the country puts together flu vaccines in vast amounts to fight the regular outbreak, so the “no one bats an eyelid” idea dies before it can start; if no one was paying attention, how did we arrive at a vaccine to begin with? But secondly – and this is the bit that keeps needling me – people keep badly overstating how destructive seasonal flu tends to be.

I am not making light of seasonal flu, it is often dangerous, and can be lethal. But truly, the numbers involved most years are quite modest compared with what we have seen in the CoVid-19 tragedy. It is possible the impression that CoVid-19 and the flu have similar death-tolls has been given a lot of recent impetus due to a mistake by the Office for National Statistics. The mistake was exacerbated by some misleading reporting on the BBC and in the Daily Mail (oh quick, someone, catch me as I faint dead away in shock…) a couple of years back, on the 2017-18 Excess Deaths figures for England & Wales.

The BBC reported,

“There were around 50,100 excess winter deaths in England and Wales in 2017-18 – the highest since the winter of 1975-76, figures from the Office for National Statistics show.

“The increase is thought to be down to the flu, the ineffectiveness of the flu vaccine in older people and spells of very cold weather last winter.”

Now, this is accurate, but the wording inadvertently suggests, by omitting all mention of the fluctuation-margins, that the extra winter deaths for the year were tens of thousands above what was expected.

The Mail then ground in the wrong impression by stating,

“More than 50,000 excess deaths were recorded across England and Wales last winter, official figures show…

“The shocking figures have been partially blamed on the deadly strains of flu that swept the nations over the colder months of December to March. “

The element of misdirection is that, again, the wording appears to imply tens of thousands of excess deaths caused by flu. But this is not the case. The 50,000 figure was the approximate total number of excess deaths. The increase from the previous couple of years, which is the focus of the story, was only about 6,000, and the flu accounted for only about half of them. According to John Stone of the British Medical Journal, the root of the problem was a blunder by the ONS.

“The number of deaths in England and Wales in an admittedly exceptionally bad year would have been only in the region of 335-340 deaths, and the ONS seem to have exaggerated the risk to the public by in the region of 150 times.”

According to Public Health England, the real toll taken by flu for that winter, while distressing, was not on quite so dramatic a scale as the BBC and others had made it sound.

“Through the USISS mandatory scheme, a total of 3,454 ICU/HDU admissions of
confirmed influenza were reported across the UK from week 40 2017 to week 15 2018,
including 372 deaths.”

In half an unusually-active year for the disease, the UK had 372 hospital deaths from flu. Projected total for all influenza-related deaths around the country for the same period, including those not admitted to hospital, was 15,969. That is certainly a heartbreaking total.

But for comparison, consider; we have been living with CoVid-19 for a little under three months in the UK. During that time, the daily hospital death-toll from the pandemic has regularly been well over double the grand hospital total for the flu in 2017-18. Indeed, even now, when the UK appears to have passed the peak (at least for the first wave) of the pandemic, and the nation sighs with relief at ‘only’ confirming the loss of about 450 lives per day for the last couple of days, the daily toll is still significantly higher than the full hospital losses to the seasonal flu in 2017-18. (And the latest daily update, released even as I am typing, has seen another acceleration, back to above 700.)

This is all before we take into account Covid-19 deaths outside hospital, which, if the Financial Times’ extrapolations are reliable, would suggest a real death-toll far in excess of 41,000.

In under three months.

There really is very little comparison. Flu is deadly. But CoVid-19 is deathly. It is time for everybody to stop calling this Coronavirus “just another flu.” It really, really is not.