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ONS uses CMI methods to compare pandemic mortality across Europe

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has published “Comparisons for all-cause mortality between European countries and regions: January to June 2020”.  For the first time, we have a true like-for-like comparison of how various European countries and regions have fared during the pandemic.  In particular, the relative cumulative age-standardised mortality rate (rcASMR) measure, originally developed by the Continuous Mortality Investigation (CMI), shows the impact that the pandemic had on mortality rates within each country, region and major city relative to mortality rates before the pandemic.

What differentiates the ONS analysis from other international comparisons that we have seen during the coronavirus pandemic is that the emphasis is on:

  1. All-cause ‘excess’ mortality, using a consistent definition for all countries, rather than only ‘COVID-19’ deaths, which are subject to different testing and recording practices in each country.
  2. Age-standardised mortality rates, which provide a fairer comparison between populations of different sizes and age distributions, rather than a simple count of deaths.

The report shows that England had the highest level of excess mortality in Europe during the year to 12 June 2020, and the longest continuous period of excess mortality. It is notable that for 14 of the 23 countries considered, age-standardised mortality for 2020 has been below the 2015-19 average.

Cobus Daneel, Chair of the CMI Mortality Projections Committee, said: “There has been much speculation about how various countries have fared relative to each other during the coronavirus pandemic, but differences in COVID-19 testing and death recording means that direct comparisons are elusive. Thanks to the ONS, and the methods developed by the CMI, we now can make like-for-like comparisons within Europe. 

“The report shows that the impact of the pandemic varied greatly between countries and regions. It is notable that all regions of the UK saw increased levels of mortality during the pandemic, but this was not true of all countries. Some countries largely avoided the pandemic, while others were able to contain it to local areas. The experiences of different countries and regions could offer valuable lessons for how to manage the ongoing pandemic and potential future waves."

To make a fair comparison between countries with different population sizes and age distributions, the ONS uses “age-standardised” measures. These show what the impact of country-specific mortality rates would have been on a hypothetical standard population. The ONS report calculates “excess” mortality by comparing actual age-standardised mortality in 2020 with average age-standardised mortality for 2015-2019. It uses measures developed by the CMI to do this.

The CMI has published frequent updates on mortality in England & Wales and the UK during the pandemic. We intend to publish our next mortality monitor update on 4 August 2020.