How does the number of COVID deaths in the UK compare with other countries?
Written by Hit Music Radio News on 26/01/2021
Statistics can be a blunt instrument.
No number can describe the pain and suffering felt across this country over the past year.
No figure can express the loss felt by so many families, nor can a single datapoint fairly depict the side-effects of imposing a national lockdown: The damage to businesses and lives; to those with other underlying conditions; to mental health.
But statistics do play at least one crucial role here. They help us to put into perspective an event which, by any standards, has affected more households than almost any other in post-war history.
They do not offer consolation, but they do provide a sense of the scale of this event we are enduring.
That scale is hard to imagine at the best of times – at a time when the world has closed up more than ever before, constraining our ability to explore and observe, that numerical perspective becomes more important than ever.
And the fact that more than 100,000 people have now died from the virus, according at least to the government’s official numbers, is at the very least a watershed to ponder – a moment to pause and consider the scale of the pandemic we are living through.
Just under a year ago the government published a document entitled “Coronavirus Action Plan: a guide to what you can expect”.
There are plenty of sections in there at which a 2021 reader might raise their eyebrows (among them that the government was “well prepared to respond in a way that offers substantial protection to the public”) but one part that stands out in particular is a table providing the death tolls of previous pandemics.
We learn that the Spanish Influenza killed 200,000, the Asian Flu of the 1950s killed 33,000, the Hong Kong Flu of the late 1960s killed 80,000 and that a typical influenza season in the 1980s tended to kill around 26,000 people.
Back at the time that table was produced, the idea was to provide some sense of what would constitute a serious pandemic, and a disastrous result for mortality – here we could see all of the 20th century’s worst health episodes, giving us a benchmark against which to judge this one.
And now we know the answer: with 100,000 deaths and counting, the death toll of COVID-19 now exceeds all of those totals, save for the Spanish Influenza.
That stands, by the way, even once you adjust for population growth (the population-adjusted Hong Kong Flu toll comes to just under 97,000).
And this, of course, is before you consider that none of those previous pandemics involved nationwide lockdowns – and that there are likely to be as many if not more lives lost to the long term effects of lockdown as to the disease itself.
That is another crucial proviso when considering a number like 100,000: the death toll will be far higher. How much higher? We simply don’t know.
It looks as if deaths in this second wave of the disease may be close to peaking, but let’s imagine they then fall at a similar rate to what we saw in spring 2020 (this could happen but they could fall faster, thanks to vaccinations and a new strain of the disease can’t be ruled out, meaning there is also a possibility they fall slower).
That would still imply, on a relatively conservative basis, another 25,000 to 35,000 deaths or just over in the next few months. It would also imply that the second wave of the pandemic would be considerably more deadly than the first wave.
But at this stage it’s worth underlining that there are many different measures of how many people have died of COVID-19 and not all of them tell precisely the same story – though all of them tell of many, many deaths.
Running through these measures is not an exercise anyone enjoys, but it is another important reminder of where we are – and of the fact that there are many different prisms through which one can judge this event.
The government’s preferred measure of COVID deaths is actually only those who have died within 28 days of a positive COVID-19 test.
It is on this measure that we have just surpassed 100,000 deaths. However, on the basis of the government’s original measure of COVID deaths – any which happened after a positive PCR test – the chances are that we probably passed the 100,000 mark some weeks ago (it’s hard to say because the government stopped producing those numbers in October, at which stage it was almost 8,000 higher than the 28 day measure).
On the government’s other measure of COVID deaths – those occurring within 60 days of a positive test, we would probably have passed the 100k mark a couple of weeks ago.
It’s hard, again, to be precise since we only have data for England, but it implies about 10,000 more deaths than the official 28 day total.
But the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and its various agencies are not the only places collecting such numbers.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has also been compiling deaths data, and by some yardsticks its data series is probably more reliable than the DHSC one, given how scarce testing was in the spring.
The ONS measure, which relies not on COVID tests but instead on the cause of death given by doctors on the death certificate, suggests that as of the end of 2020, the government’s official death toll was undercounting the total COVID-19 toll by around 18,000. It reckons we passed through the 100,000 mark a week into January, and exceeded 107,000 by the middle of the month.
Finally comes another measure entirely: excess deaths. This takes the total number of deaths from all causes and compares it to the average in previous years.
The advantage of doing so is that one avoids the difficulties of attempting to determine whether COVID caused the death or not.
You also get a sense of the mortality impact of both COVID but also the lockdowns themselves, which are likely to have caused further deaths.
Across the UK, excess deaths since March have reached just under 99,000. The fact that this figure is similar to the overall COVID death toll disguises some important differences.
Between March and the end of August 2020 the excess death toll was around 10,000 higher than any of the official COVID tolls, suggesting that many COVID deaths – especially those of older people in care homes – were being registered as deaths from other causes, most commonly dementia.
However, during the winter, something else has happened. Between September and mid-January the excess death toll has been considerably lower than the COVID toll – around 15,000 as of a couple of weeks ago.
Why? One possible explanation is that some of the deaths occurring this winter might otherwise have occurred in a “typical” year, except from different causes.
But the reality is that it will take some time before we know for sure.
One of the lessons one gets from examining these various measures is the extent to which they remind us of different stories that might be lost in the other numbers.
From the government’s figures we get a sense of the strain facing the health service through much of the past year.
From the ONS figures on excess deaths we realise that far more people than usual are dying – and many of them are dying at home rather than at hospitals.
We realise, in other words, the extent to which death has touched so many of our lives in a way that we have not seen for generations.
Finally, there is another much-mentioned context in which to judge the UK’s mortality: compared with other countries. Here too, the picture is depressing.
Though the UK’s mortality outcome is not the worst, either in the developed world or the wider world, it is among the worst.
Again, there are various lenses to consider this through: if you look purely at COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 of the population, the UK has suffered the third biggest cumulative death toll, with 145 deaths per 100,000 – below Slovenia (162) and Belgium (179) and ahead of the Czech Republic (144) and Italy (141).
But there is a big problem comparing these numbers. Some countries have been assiduous in collecting their COVID-19 mortality numbers while others – especially those in the developing and emerging world – have struggled or failed to do so.
So a better prism (albeit still not a perfect one) is to look instead at excess deaths – those deaths above the typical amount for the time of year.
When looking at excess deaths, the UK is not in the top five countries for mortality: those places are taken by Peru, Mexico, Ecuador, Russia and Belgium respectively.
But the UK does feature at seventh place in the list, behind those five and Spain, and just above Portugal and the United States. Not the worst in the world, but among the worst in the world.
However, the pandemic still has some way to go.
Right now UK mortality is high but with vaccinations proceeding rapidly it is plausible that cases and deaths fall much faster here than in most countries. It is possible that by the end of 2021 other countries will sadly climb higher in this most depressing of all tables.
When historians look at the UK’s COVID-19 experience, its mortality outcomes will always stick out.
When future policymakers come to produce the tables and documents to prepare the country for the next pandemic, this one will feature high in them, alongside the Spanish Flu.
The data makes that clear. In time, future generations may forget the sacrifices made and the struggles endured by many in this country. But they will always be able to look back and see these numbers, a testament to a terrible period.
© Sky News 2020