Average life expectancy plummets in England and Scotland due to COVID

Tom Selby
23 September 2021

•    Average life expectancy at birth fell by 7.8 weeks in England and 11 weeks in Scotland between 2018 and 2020, new data reveals (Life expectancy for local areas of the UK - Office for National Statistics (ons.gov.uk))
•    The COVID pandemic unsurprisingly was the primary cause, resulting in “significant reductions” in life expectancy compared with the period 2015-2017
•    Life expectancy fell across most regions of England, but not equally:
o    Large drops in male life expectancy at birth were seen in the North East (16.7 weeks) and Yorkshire and The Humber (8.8 weeks)
o    For females, life expectancy was down in the West Midlands (9.9 weeks) but up significantly in the South West (17.7 weeks)
•    The life expectancy gap is even more stark when you compare specific locations:
o    Male life expectancy fell by 1.9 years in Hertsmere but rose by 2.1 years in Westminster
o    Female life expectancy dropped 1.1 years in Derby but surged 1.7 years in Kensington and Chelsea

Tom Selby, head of retirement policy at AJ Bell, comments: “After decades of near constant improvements in UK life expectancy, the COVID pandemic has – for the time being at least – dramatically reduced how long most of us might expect to live on average. 

“The average fall in life expectancy of 7.8 weeks in England and 11 weeks in Scotland is not a surprise but remains shocking to see in black and white.

“These life expectancy falls have not been spread equally across the country, however. In fact, while males born in the North East have experienced a staggering 16.7 week fall in average life expectancy, males born in the South West have actually seen a 5.7 week life expectancy improvement. 

“Females born in the North East, meanwhile, have seen their life expectancy decline 4.2 weeks, while those born in the South West can expect to live 17.7 weeks longer than in 2015-17.

“When you look at individual local authorities the disparities are even more stark. For example, male life expectancy in Hertsmere was down 1.9 years during the period, but up 2.1 years in Westminster. Female life expectancy dropped 1.1 years in Derby but surged 1.7 years in Kensington and Chelsea.”

State pension rethink?

“There are all sorts of factors at play here, including the health, lifestyle and wealth of those affected. Areas with lower deaths linked to COVID were unsurprisingly more likely to report continuing improvements in life expectancy.

“These significant reductions in average life expectancy will inevitably heap pressure on the Government to rethink the planned hike in the state pension age from 66 to 67 in 2028. 

“What’s more, the vast differences in life expectancy in different parts of the UK will likely reignite the debate around the flexibility of the state pension system. 

“The current framework means you cannot access the state pension until you hit state pension age, meaning those with lower average life expectancy can expect to receive less from the state in retirement on average. One idea often floated is to allow people to access their state pension early but at a reduced rate. This could help certain groups who might expect to live less long, although care would need to be taken not to heap more complexity onto what is already a complicated system.

“Given the catastrophic impact COVID has had on all of our lives – and in particular to life expectancy – it makes sense to begin this debate now. State pension age changes have been planned for a long time and were designed to reflect longer-term improvements in life expectancy. 

“Rowing back on the hike would undoubtedly be popular but would also cost the Treasury billions of pounds at a time when public finances are already stretched to breaking point.”

Tom Selby
Head of Retirement Policy

Tom Selby is a multi-award-winning former financial journalist, specialising in pensions and retirement issues. He spent almost six years at a leading adviser trade magazine, initially as Pensions Reporter before becoming Head of News in 2014. Tom joined AJ Bell as Senior Analyst in April 2016. He has a degree in Economics from Newcastle University.

Contact details

Mobile: 07702 858 234
Email: tom.selby@ajbell.co.uk

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