COVID-19 has dropped out of the top five leading causes of death in England and Wales for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

The virus was the sixth leading cause of death in 2022, down from the leading cause in both 2020 and 2021, with 73,766 deaths (12.1% of all deaths) and 67,350 (11.5%) respectively, according to figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Sarah Caul, head of mortality analysis, said the figures represent a “significant change” in the leading causes of death since the beginning of the pandemic.

COVID levels among the population of England and Wales last year reached the highest they had ever been since the pandemic began, peaking at an estimated 4.4 million weekly infections at the end of March, due to the development of new variants.

But overall, 2022 saw a fall in COVID deaths, the leading cause being dementia and Alzheimer’s (11.4% of all deaths registered).

This reflects the success of the vaccination programme which was first rolled out across the country in early 2021, with booster doses subsequently made available to older and more vulnerable individuals.

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The other top five causes of death in 2022 were ischaemic heart diseases; chronic lower respiratory diseases; cerebrovascular diseases such as strokes and aneurysms; and trachea, bronchus and lung cancer.

The only group in which the virus appeared in the top five was death among males aged 80 and over, where it was listed as third.

The overall number of deaths registered last year in England and Wales was 577,160, lower than both 2021 and 2020, but 6.2% above the five-year average, with more than 30,000 extra deaths.

Health experts have suggested that factors contributing this excess could include seasonal viruses such as flu, the impact of the summer heatwave, pressures on the NHS, and access to medical services.