Child deaths in England fell by about 10% during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic to what could be a record low, according to the first study of its kind.
The findings sharply contrast with overall mortality for England’s population, which was 14% higher than the previous year.
The number of children in England who died fell to 3,067 between April 2020 and March 2021 – 356 fewer than were recorded in the previous 12 months – with the fall particularly marked in under-10s and those with underlying health problems.
It is likely to represent the lowest level of child mortality on record, researchers at the Universities of Bristol and Cardiff found.
In Archives of Disease in Childhood, they wrote: “What these data show is that, during 2020–21, when multiple measures were introduced with the aim of reducing morbidity and mortality from Covid-19 in the adult population, there was an unexpected fall in overall child mortality in England, most marked in younger children and those with underlying health conditions and infectious disease other than Covid-19.
“The magnitude of this fall (around 10%), including those children living in the most deprived conditions, a group for whom previous attempts to reduce excess mortality have generally been less successful, makes clear that we need to investigate what aspect of societal reorganisation and the restrictions faced by the whole population have had this effect.”
The study used data from the University of Bristol-led National Child Mortality Database (NCMD) – a first-of-its-kind initiative to collect comprehensive and timely data on every child death in England.
Researchers sought to quantify the relative risk of childhood deaths across England during the first year of the pandemic, compared with the year before.
Findings from the analysis showed that deaths from non-Covid infections and other underlying conditions fell, and there is some evidence of fewer deaths from substance abuse.
In addition, the reduction in mortality appeared to occur during the winter months, where the seasonal increase, often caused by infections other than Covid, was not apparent, researchers said. This period coincided with the prolonged lockdown in England from January to April 2021.
Prof Karen Luyt, programme lead for the NCMD and professor of neonatal medicine at the University of Bristol, said: “There was clear evidence that the reduction in mortality was seen in two key areas: those children with underlying health conditions and those who died of infectious diseases other than Covid.
“Our data demonstrate that child deaths caused by seasonal infections are potentially substantially modifiable at population level.
“It is therefore important that we learn from the effects highlighted in this study to improve the outcome for the most vulnerable children in our society.”