Covid-19: UK official death toll now highest in Europe

Statistics released on Tuesday raise number of United Kingdom deaths to 32,313

Britain’s health secretary Matt Hancock arrives in Downing Street, London, on Sunday for the daily coronavirus briefing. Photograph: Getty Images

Britain’s health secretary Matt Hancock arrives in Downing Street, London, on Sunday for the daily coronavirus briefing. Photograph: Getty Images

 

The United Kingdom has overtaken Italy to report the highest official death toll from coronavirus in Europe, figures released on Tuesday showed, increasing pressure on prime minister Boris Johnson over his response to the crisis.

Weekly figures from Britain’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) added more than 7,000 deaths in England and Wales in the week to April 24th, raising the total for the United Kingdom to 32,313.

Only the United States, with a population nearly five times greater, has suffered more confirmed fatalities from the virus than Britain, according to the data so far.

Tuesday’s figures are based on death certificate mentions of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, including suspected cases.

While different ways of counting make comparisons with other countries difficult, the figure confirmed Britain was among those hit worst by a pandemic that has killed more than 250,000 worldwide.

“I don’t think we’ll get a real verdict on how countries have done until the pandemic is over, and particularly until we’ve got international comprehensive data on all-cause mortality,” foreign secretary Dominic Raab told reporters.

Opposition politicians said the figures proved the government had been too slow to provide enough protective equipment to hospitals and introduce mass testing.

“I’d be amazed if, when we look back, we don’t think: yep we could have done something differently there,” the government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said in response to MPs’ questions on testing.

‘Dangerous phase’

Responding to the ONS figures, a Downing Street spokesman pointed to Mr Johnson’s recent comments that Britain had passed the peak of the disease but remained in a “dangerous phase”.

He also cited the advice of England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty: “Different countries are recording different things in relation to deaths.”

Italy and Spain, the next worst-hit European countries, have smaller populations than Britain, further complicating comparisons.

“Putting a graph out with the United States at the top and UK second is not helpful, but once you start to break it down by looking at the population we should be seriously asking questions about what’s different,” said Carl Heneghan, professor of evidence-based medicine at Oxford University.

“Why are six countries disproportionately affected?” Prof Heneghan added, referring to a list dominated by Europe.

Ministers dislike comparisons of the headline death toll, saying that excess mortality – the number of deaths from all causes that exceed the average for the time of year - is more meaningful because it is internationally comparable.

But early evidence for excess mortality suggests Britain will be one of the hardest-hit on this measure, too.

ONS statistician Nick Stripe said excess deaths for the United Kingdom were running about 42,000 higher than average at this point in the year.

However, only about 80 per cent of these excess deaths have been linked specifically with Covid-19.

The weekly ONS data also showed the peak in Covid-19 deaths has likely passed, although the week to April 24th was still the second-deadliest since comparable records began being kept in 1993.

The overall decline also masked a worsening picture in care homes.

The ONS said 7,911 deaths from all causes were registered in care homes in the week ending April 24th, three times higher than a month previously.

“These figures show that talk of being ‘past the peak’ of this awful virus simply does not hold true for social care,” said Labour MP Liz Kendall.

Scientist quits

Separately, a scientist whose research aided Mr Johnson’s decision to impose a lockdown has resigned from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) after admitting an “error of judgment”.

Professor Neil Ferguson said on Tuesday that he regretted “undermining” the continued need for social distancing to tackle coronavirus after it was claimed he broke the rules.

The Telegraph reported that he allowed a woman to visit him at home in London on at least two occasions during the lockdown.

Prof Ferguson’s research with Imperial College London colleagues warned that 250,000 people could die in the UK without drastic action shortly before the prime minister imposed the restrictions.

Prof Ferguson told the Telegraph: “I accept I made an error of judgment and took the wrong course of action. I have therefore stepped back from my involvement in Sage.

“I acted in the belief that I was immune, having tested positive for coronavirus, and completely isolated myself for almost two weeks after developing symptoms.

“I deeply regret any undermining of the clear messages around the continued need for social distancing to control this devastating epidemic. The Government guidance is unequivocal, and is there to protect all of us.”

A government spokesman confirmed Prof Ferguson’s resignation. – Reuters/PA