Katy Balls

Is it ‘speculation’ to say the UK has the most deaths in Europe?

Is it 'speculation' to say the UK has the most deaths in Europe?
Picture by Pippa Fowles / No. 10 Downing Street
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It's a grim news week for the government with Dominic Raab announcing in Tuesday's press conference that the UK coronavirus death toll is now at 29,427 (ONS figures suggest the number of deaths is as high as 32,313). This means that according to official figures from each country, the UK has overtaken Italy in fatalities and currently has the highest death toll in Europe. 

However, at the press conference, Raab suggested such a conclusion was 'speculation' and warned against early international comparisons on the grounds that there are differences in the way various countries' record coronavirus deaths and excess deaths with the size of the population also needing to be taken into account:

I don’t think we’ll get a real verdict on how well countries have done until the pandemic is over and particularly until we’ve got comprehensive international data on all cause of mortality. We now publish data that includes all deaths in all settings and not all countries do that so I’m not sure that the international comparison works unless you reliably know that all countries are measuring in the same way.

This echoes comments by Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and his deputy Jenni Harries warning against early comparisons. While this message is somewhat undermined by the fact the government shows a global comparison graph in every daily press conference, there is a view that once full data has been gathered in a few months time the UK may not be at the bottom of the league table. 

No one in government expects the UK figures to compare well with South Korea or Germany by the end of the pandemic. These countries have a substantially lower death toll – with the UK now trying to learn from both countries' response. But of the countries that have been very badly impacted – such as Italy, Spain, France and Belgium – the current order is viewed as not so clear cut. This is for a few reasons from population size and demographic to the speed and manner in which deaths are reported.

On Sunday, Professor Ian Diamond of the Chief Executive of UK Statistics Authority touched on this in an interview with Andrew Marr – where he cautioned against the idea that the UK was heading for the worst death toll in Europe:

I would say that making international comparisons, Andrew, is an unbelievably difficult thing to do. We, in this country, have in my opinion – and let me be clear, I would say this wouldn’t it – but I think we have the best reporting, most transparent reporting and the most timely reporting, because we include death registrations and we’ve been pushing our death registration reporting as fast as we possibly can. 

And then even after you look at the actual deaths, it’s incredibly important to recognise the context. So deaths are going to be more concentrated, as I’ve already indicated, in inner cities. If you have a rural country, then it’s likely that your death rates will be lower. I’m not saying that we’re at the bottom of the league, potential league tables; it’s almost impossible to calculate a league table, but I’m not prepared to say that we’re heading for the top.

Key to all comparisons is 'excess deaths' – the number of deaths above average for the time of year – which will take time to emerge from all countries.