National Records of Scotland

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COVID-19 drives increase in winter deaths

COVID-19 drives increase in winter deaths

Tuesday, 12 Oct 2021
Demographic Statistics News Release Image

23,370 deaths were registered in Scotland in the four months of winter 2020/21, the second highest total in the last 30 years, according to statistics published today by National Records of Scotland.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) was the underlying cause of nearly two-thirds, or 2,850, of the 4,330 additional deaths last winter.

The other causes of death with the largest seasonal increases last winter were dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and coronary (ischaemic) heart disease – both with 210 additional deaths each. Very few deaths were directly due to cold weather, for example hypothermia.

Older age groups are consistently the most affected by winter mortality. Last winter, of those aged 85 and over there were 13 additional deaths per 1,000 of the population, compared to fewer than 1 death per 1,000 amongst those aged under 65.

The seasonal increase in mortality in winter is generally lower in Scotland than in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Pete Whitehouse, Director of Statistical Services at NRS, said:

“'These figures show again the significant impact COVID-19 had on Scotland last winter. Compared to the average of the previous five winters, the winter of 2020/21 saw a 10% higher level of mortality, with the majority of additional deaths being due to COVID-19.”

The full ‘Winter Mortality’ publication is available from the NRS website.  It shows the seasonal increase in mortality recorded each winter in Scotland, broken down by age-group, sex, cause of death, Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation quintile, NHS Board and Local Authority area.  


The seasonal increase in mortality in the winter represents the number of ‘additional’ deaths in winter. It is defined as the difference between the number of deaths in the 4-month 'winter' period (December to March, inclusive) and the average number of deaths in the two 4-month periods which precede winter (August to November, inclusive) and follow winter (April to July, inclusive).  It is also referred to as ‘excess winter deaths’ or ‘excess winter mortality’.

The seasonal increase in mortality can change substantially from winter to winter, but the long-term trend has clearly been downward. In the 1950’s and 60’s, there was an average seasonal increase of over 5,200 deaths in winter, whereas over the most recent decade it has averaged around 2,600. Figures for the most recent years suggest a departure from the long-term downward trend. It is not clear whether this will continue as there have been similar increasing periods before in the past which were followed by a return to the longer term decreasing trend.

To account for differences in population size, seasonal increases for different areas are better compared using the Increased Winter Mortality Index (IWMI).  This is defined as the number of 'additional' winter deaths divided by the average number of deaths in a four month 'non-winter' period, expressed as a percentage. 

National Records of Scotland (NRS) produces statistics on Scotland’s population, including the numbers of births, deaths, marriages and other vital events. General information about NRS’s statistics can be found in the About our Statistics section of its website.

Media enquiries should be directed to:
Donna Green
NRS Communications
Tel: 07775-027-380
Email: [email protected]

Further information about the statistics is available from:
NRS Customer Services
Email: [email protected]