“Austerity was not just a bloodless balancing of the books. It was paid for with people’s lives, 120,000 people”

That was the claim from left-wing commentator Ash Sarkar on last night’s Question Time. A clip of the comment was quickly shared on Twitter by Jeremy Corbyn, who added his own caption: “You can’t disagree with this.”

So is it true?

The source

It’s probably not the first time you’ve heard this figure. We assume Ms Sarkar was referring to a study published in the online journal BMJ Open, titled ‘Effects of health and social care spending constraints on mortality in England: a time trend analysis’, which hit the headlines in 2017.

The report’s authors, academics at University College London, compared trends in mortality in the years before the Conservatives took office in 2010 with the years after. They found that in the 2000s, death rates were falling while in the first three years of the 2010s, they increased.

The researchers used this comparison to quantify a “mortality gap” — the difference between the number of people who actually died in the early 2010s versus the number of people who would have been expected to die had death rates continued to decline at the rate previously predicted.

At the same time, they tracked “associations between [government health] spending and mortality.”

How did they reach the 120,000 figure?

The study’s authors estimated that there were nearly 45,000 more deaths in the years 2012 to 2014 than would have been predicted by earlier mortality trends.

They then extrapolated those figures to cover the period 2010 to 2017, which yields the estimated 120,000 “excess deaths.”

Is austerity to blame?

As FactCheck and Full Fact have reported before, this study’s findings should be handled with care.

The researchers concluded: “we have found that spending constraints since 2010 especially [public expenditure on social care] may have produced a substantial mortality gap in England.”

But other scientists have raised doubts.

Professor Martin Roland, who specialises in health services research at the University of Cambridge, responded to the paper at the time.

He pointed out that while something seems to have happened in 2014 that caused deaths in the UK to rise, “the link to health and social care spending is speculative as observational studies of this type can never prove case and effect.”

Dr Richard Fordham, senior lecturer in health economics at the University of East Anglia, was also cautious about such “longitudinal studies,” noting that “different time periods are rarely identical.” So it may not be fair to compare trends from one decade (the 2000s) with another (the early 2010s), as this study has done.

Indeed, he says the paper’s suggestion that extra deaths were linked to falling nurse numbers is “a plausible hypothesis,” but “other explanations are available.”

He suggests some alternatives: “Patient cohorts may have changed (for example more end-stage, longer-term illnesses); patients may have succumbed to different or new diseases (e.g. MRSA, cirrhosis, etc.); or had greater multiple morbidities (asthma plus diabetes plus cancer, etc.) than similar cohorts of the same age before them.”

Professor Roland concludes that the study’s authors “overstate the certainty of [the] link” between excess deaths and cuts to government funding.”

In other words, the paper does not prove that austerity caused the 120,000 “excess deaths” that the authors estimate may have occurred between 2010 and 2017 (based on three years’ worth of data).

In 2019 another study, this time from left-leaning think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research, estimated there were 130,000 deaths in England between 2012 and 2017 that could have been prevented.

Unlike the UCL researchers, the IPPR don’t attribute the figure directly to austerity (although some outlets reported it as such). However, the authors note that “prevention services and public health has been severely impacted” by the policy.

But again, this is not the same as proving cause and effect — and the IPPR authors don’t claim to have done so.

FactCheck verdict

Jeremy Corbyn shared a claim from a left-wing commentator that “Austerity was […] paid for with people’s lives, 120,000 people.”

It seems to come from a 2017 study that linked cuts to government healthcare to extra deaths that occurred in the 2010s compared to the number we’d have expected to see had the mortality trends of the 2000s continued.

But the study is limited by a number of factors. The “120,000” figure comes from data covering 2012 to 2014 which was then extrapolated to cover 2010 to 2017.

More importantly, it does not prove that austerity policies actually caused the recorded and estimated extra deaths. As scientists from the Universities of Cambridge and East Anglia have noted, there are various other explanations for the change in death rates (e.g. different diseases affecting people of the same age).

Ultimately, we cannot say — based on the evidence in this study —  that austerity policies caused 120,000 extra deaths.