The number of excess deaths in Scotland is a “substantial issue”, with deaths being consistently higher than average during the second half of 2021, experts have told MSPs.
During this period, non-coronavirus deaths represented about half of all excess mortality, Holyrood’s Covid-19 Recovery Committee has heard.
The committee is carrying out an inquiry into the rise of excess deaths in Scotland and the extent this has a direct link to the pandemic.
Dr Lynda Fenton, a consultant at Public Health Scotland (PHS), said there were three phases of excess mortality in Scotland – the first wave of the pandemic, the early weeks of 2021 and the second half of that year.
During the last six months of 2021, overalls deaths were consistently above the average, rising to more than 20% above average at some points.
She told the committee on Thursday: “My interpretation is that this is a substantial issue, there’s a range of causes of deaths and age groups affected.
“I think we need to recognise that in view of that breadth, there’s likely to be both health service factors and also factors that are related to the determinants of health.”
Early data from 2022 showed some improvement in excess deaths, she said.
PHS’s written submission to the committee said: “The lower than expected number of non-Covid-19 deaths up until summer 2021 reduced the total excess deaths substantially.
“However, from July 2021 onwards, the pattern changed with almost all causes of death being in excess.
“Although Covid-19 deaths continued to represent the largest single cause of excess crude deaths (and respiratory deaths remained similar to the long-term average), ‘other’ causes of death, circulatory deaths, dementia/Alzheimer’s deaths and cancer deaths all were higher than expected.”
PHS said data on the severity of disease at the time of presentation was not available for many conditions.
Lawrence Cowan, director of communications at Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland, said the full impact of the pandemic would become clearer over a longer period of time.
There are concerns people are showing “healthcare hesitancy” and delaying their visits to the health service, ultimately presenting with more serious conditions.
He told the committee: “Seeking medical help potentially later will actually have a long-term impact on our health service beyond just a few years.
“This is something that’s going to be with us for a long time.”