England's public health monitor is to scrap a regular report into mortality rates, after a recent leak revealed an unexpected spike in the number of deaths among the elderly.
Although Public Health England said that the reports were being stopped because they "duplicate" work already done by the organisation, Labour has called for ministers to explain why they have been scrapped within days of widespread media coverage about their concerning content.
The leak of a recent "weekly and monthly deaths report" revealed there had been 23,400 more deaths in England and Wales than usual since early 2012 - a five per cent increase on projections, with the highest rises in people over 80.
Health officials have so far been unable to account for the spike, but Public Health England is investigating and due to publish its findings later this month. A virulent strain of flu, a plateau in growing life expectancies, cuts to local government social care services and increasing pressures on accident and emergency wards and primary care have all been suggested as possible explanations.
Public Health England will continue to publish mortality rates in its weekly and annual flu reports, which also record deaths from all other causes and use internationally recognised methodologies to record death rates, a PHE spokesman said. However, critics said the flu reports are less detailed.
Andrew Gwynne MP, Labour's Shadow Health Minister, said: "Two weeks ago, a leaked report showed an unexplained rise in deaths amongst older people. Not only did Jeremy Hunt ignore Labour's calls for an urgent investigation but these worrying reports have been discontinued just days later. They raise major concerns about levels of care and support for older people…Ministers must account for the concerning content of the reports and the decision to stop producing them."
Explaining the decision to scrap the reports, a PHE spokesman said: "An analyst, who continued their work that was part of their previous role prior to coming into PHE… circulated [the weekly and monthly deaths report]. After an internal review, it was decided that PHE's formal on-going monitoring of deaths continued to be undertaken by PHE's Respiratory Diseases Department using peer-reviewed approaches recognised internationally."
A Department of Health spokesperson: “Any increase in deaths is concerning and deserves proper analysis which is why PHE are investigating this data further. However, it is scaremongering to suggest a link to poor care and support before there is any evidence to support such a claim.
“In fact the most recent report suggests that the rise in excess deaths coincides with a colder than normal winter which featured a number of prolonged respiratory viruses, including flu.
“Public Health England continues weekly mortality surveillance to detect and report excess mortality above the levels in a timely fashion.”