The UK has suffered the highest rate of deaths from the coronavirus pandemic among countries that produce comparable data, according to excess mortality figures. The UK has registered 59,537 more deaths than usual since the week ending March 20, indicating that the virus has directly or indirectly killed 891 people per million. At this stage of the pandemic, that is a higher rate of death than in any country for which high-quality data exist.
The absolute number of excess deaths in the UK is also the highest in Europe, and second only to the US in global terms, according to data collected by the Financial Times. The country fares no better on another measure: the percentage increase in deaths compared with normal levels, where the UK once again is the worst hit in Europe and behind only Peru internationally. The data were compiled from national statistical agencies for 19 countries for which sufficient information exists to make robust comparisons. The figures include all of the European countries hit hard by coronavirus.
The periods for comparison are from when death rates in individual countries climbed above five-year averages. The FT has made these comparisons for the first time because the level of excess deaths in other hard-hit European countries, such as Italy and Spain, has returned close to normal levels. This means death rates in those countries are unlikely to overtake the UK unless they suffer a second wave of infections.
Other countries like China, Brazil and Russia have suffered large death tolls during the pandemic. However, their mortality rates are far below the UK as the number of deaths is smaller compared with their much larger populations. The timing of lockdowns relative to the spread of the virus had a significant effect on the total level of excess deaths, the data show. Countries such as Germany and Norway, which imposed restrictions when the spread of the virus was limited, suffered much lower levels of additional deaths than those in the UK where the government waited longer before ordering a lockdown.
A UK government spokesperson said it was “wrong and premature to be drawing conclusions at this stage” and that excess deaths should be adjusted for age. “We will, of course, learn lessons from our response to this virus, but these must be drawn from an accurate international analysis in the future,” Number 10 added. David Spiegelhalter, Winton professor of the public understanding of risk at Cambridge university, said: “If we can believe the data from other countries, then the UK has done badly in terms of excess deaths. The issues now concern what will happen for the rest of the year and trying to understand the processes contributing to our large excess.”
Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary, said the government had “not got on top of this crisis as well as other countries. We were too slow into lockdown, off the pace on testing and PPE, and too slow to protect our care homes,” referring to the shortage of personal protective equipment for frontline health and care workers.