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High excess deaths in the UK in late 2022 have been widely reported in the media recently. In January 2023, The Times, for instance, ran a headline on there being 1,000 excess deaths each week, while the BBC reported that 2022 was one of the worst years for excess deaths in the last 50 years.

Why was the number of deaths so high in 2022?

Excess deaths[1] in 2022 were high due to a number of factors, including peaks in Omicron infections and the summer heatwave. On top of that, there was a spike in excess deaths in December 2022, largely caused by the NHS’ inability to offer the level of service it had during the rest of the year, with patients experiencing long delays for ambulances, and dying because they didn’t receive emergency care when they needed it.

However, the media headlines don’t tell the full story. While it’s true that excess deaths were up in 2022, a rise in deaths over the year had been projected by the Office of National Statistics (ONS). Their projection was very close to the actual figures — only 1.2% out.

Deaths set to rise still further

Some of this projection was based on knock-on health impacts from the pandemic, but some of it was part of a long-running trend: the ageing population of baby boomers. Baby boomers make up the largest generational cohort in the country. As more of them reach their mid-seventies and beyond, we would expect the number of deaths to increase. That’s why the number of deaths in the UK has been increasing every year since 2012 and will continue to do so for decades to come.

Excess deaths compared to what?

To work out how many excess deaths there are, you need to compare the number of deaths to something else. What you choose can make a big difference. The high figures reported by the media (6% to 11% excess deaths) were based on comparing the number of deaths in 2022 to the average of the five years before. Crucially, 2020 was left out of that baseline average, because there were so many Covid deaths that year. That’s not unreasonable: we certainly hope we don’t get another year like that. But it does make the number of excess deaths come out higher.

At the other end of the scale, had the excess deaths been calculated by comparing to the ONS’s projections, the excess death figures reported for 2022 would be more like 1.2%.

What does all this mean for legacy fundraising?

Despite those headlines suggesting there were a lot more deaths than expected, our central forecast at Legacy Foresight is still that legacy income will remain broadly static (at around £4bn in 2022-2024) until 2025, when we predict it will return to growth, rising to £4.4bn by 2027[2].

The baby boomer bulge in population means the number of deaths each year is expected to continue to increase until at least the middle of the 21st century, and, we would hope, more deaths means more gifts in Wills.

We expect bequest numbers for UK charities to be around 11% higher in the next five years (2023-2027) than in the previous five years. And by 2030, we are expecting to see 100,000 more deaths than we saw in 2019, meaning a further increase in the number of gifts – so long as about 6% of people continue to leave a gift to a UK charity in their Will.

While the rise in excess deaths may well mean that gifts to charities could be on the increase, it’s important that fundraisers don’t allow complacency to set in. A concerted legacy fundraising effort will be required to significantly grow your charity’s income from this source. The rise in the number of deaths has been extremely well documented, and in an already rapidly growing legacies marketplace many charities are competing. To make sure your voice gets heard, proactive, creative and effective communications with supporters will be needed.

About the author

Dr Doug Clow is a Data Analyst at Legacy Foresight

1 ‘Excess deaths’ meaning the number of mortalities in any given year compared to the five years previous

2 Legacy Foresight market model