Background: The mortality impact of COVID-19 has thus far been described in terms of crude death counts. We aimed to calibrate the scale of the modelled mortality impact of COVID-19 using age-standardised mortality rates and life expectancy contribution against other, socially determined, causes of death in order to inform governments and the public.

Methods: We compared mortality attributable to suicide, drug poisoning and socioeconomic inequality with estimates of mortality from an infectious disease model of COVID-19. We calculated age-standardised mortality rates and life expectancy contributions for the UK and its constituent nations.

Results: Mortality from a fully unmitigated COVID-19 pandemic is estimated to be responsible for a negative life expectancy contribution of −5.96 years for the UK. This is reduced to −0.33 years in the fully mitigated scenario. The equivalent annual life expectancy contributions of suicide, drug poisoning and socioeconomic inequality-related deaths are −0.25, −0.20 and −3.51 years, respectively. The negative impact of fully unmitigated COVID-19 on life expectancy is therefore equivalent to 24 years of suicide deaths, 30 years of drug poisoning deaths and 1.7 years of inequality-related deaths for the UK.

Conclusion: Fully mitigating COVID-19 is estimated to prevent a loss of 5.63 years of life expectancy for the UK. Over 10 years, there is a greater negative life expectancy contribution from inequality than around six unmitigated COVID-19 pandemics. To achieve long-term population health improvements it is therefore important to take this opportunity to introduce post-pandemic economic policies to ‘build back better’.


© Author(s) (or their employer(s)) 2020. Re-use permitted under CC BY. Published by BMJ. This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Unported (CC BY 4.0) license, which permits others to copy, redistribute, remix, transform and build upon this work for any purpose, provided the original work is properly cited, a link to the licence is given, and indication of whether changes were made. See: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Cite as

McCartney, G., Leyland, A., Walsh, D. & Dundas, R. 2020, 'Scaling COVID-19 against inequalities: should the policy response consistently match the mortality challenge?', Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 75(4), pp. 315-320. https://doi.org/10.1136/jech-2020-214373

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Last updated: 15 September 2022
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