Yesterday the British Government finally began to include deaths from covid-19 recorded outside hospitals in England in the statistics it is giving daily and has added these to the figure for deaths in English hospitals. The official figure for those who have tragically died from this terrible disease in the UK as of Wednesday 29 April stands at 26,097. This is higher than the official figures for Spain (23,822) and France (24,087 – figure from Google ), and close to the figures for Italy (27,359). It is considerably higher than the 6,314 deaths reported in Germany, the only EU country with a larger population than the UK.
(Please note that unless stated otherwise, all figures and statistics quoted in this article come from https://www.travellingtabby.com/scotland-coronavirus-tracker/)
It’s been known for some time that there is a significant number of deaths in the community, and especially in care homes, yet for some unaccountable reason the British Government didn’t see fit to include these deaths in its published figures for England. Neither were they included in the statistics for Northern Ireland. The Welsh and Scottish Governments have both been including care home deaths from covid-19 in the Welsh and Scottish figures. This meant that it was not possible to make a direct comparison between the figures from England – which has the largest population and the largest death toll, both in absolute numbers and per head of population – with figures from elsewhere in the UK.
There are suspicions that this was to disguise the true impact of the virus on the UK, and to deflect criticism of the British Government for its slow and confused response to the crisis, and its deliberate decision in previous years to run down preparedness for an epidemic in order to prioritise Brexit and an ideologically motivated austerity. It is after all the Westminster Government which has direct control of public health in England, and it’s England which is the worst affected part of the UK.
Let’s be honest here, this is a British Government which has treated the scientific advice upon which it claims to base its response as though it were a state secret. It has refused to publish the details of who sat on its scientific committee formulating the advice, and it has recently come to light that one of the members of that influential committee was the ideologue and political fixer Dominic Cummings. None of this inspires confidence.
What we do know for certain is that the reported deaths in the official statistics represent a minimum figure. The true figure is certainly higher. The official death toll only tells us how many people who have been diagnosed with the virus have died from it. Many will have passed away without ever having been tested, and since the UK has been slow to implement generalised tests, only a small percentage of the population has received one. People who pass away from covid-19 without ever having been tested do not figure in the official statistics. There are indications that the true number of those who are dying could be much higher than the official statistics, even the revised figures for England, are telling us.
So for example the Guardian tells us that although the British Government has added 3,811 deaths in care homes and the community to the figures for England, the Office of National Statistics and the Care Quality Commission report that there have been 4,996 deaths in care homes in the two weeks up to 24 April. Many of these will be deaths of people who have not been tested for the virus and who will not be added to the official statistics. The true figure of deaths from the virus will only be known from the total of recorded deaths where covid-19 on the death certificate are totalled. There is a considerable lag in the reporting of these figures, and even then the British Government does not seem to wish to include those deaths where the patient has not been tested for the virus.
The difficulty in knowing exactly how many people are passing away from covid-19 means that studies are looking at what is called the excess mortality. As we all know, the leading cause of death is being born in the first place. We are all mortal. In any population there is going to be a daily death toll as people pass away from age related conditions, illness, accidents, or other causes. Excess mortality is the figure for those who are passing away in excess of what would normally be expected in the population. It’s a measure of the number of additional deaths in the population over and above what we’d usually expect to see. Excess mortality is calculated by subtracting the expected number of deaths (from comparing from previous years) from the actual recorded number. A recent investigation by Sky News found that the excess in mortality in England is far greater than it is in the other nations of the UK and places England amongst the worst affected countries in Europe.
In a previous report a Financial Times investigation into excess mortality came up with an estimate of 41,000 people already having died of covid-19 in the UK. The report notes that these excess deaths came during a period when the weather was warm and sunny, unlike previous spikes in excess mortality which are often associated with periods of cold weather. This makes it a reasonable assumption that the excess deaths are due to the virus and not other causes such as seasonal flu.
Today (Thursday 30 April) the Financial Times’ economics editor Chris Giles tweeted an updated estimate for the number of deaths in the UK due to the virus epidemic. The FT estimates that the likely figure is now 48,100.
What we do know is that the UK is one of the worst affected states in Europe, and that England is worse affected than Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland. There are of course reasons why England would report the highest number of deaths – both in absolute and in relative terms – in the UK irrespective of who was in charge of the British Government or how well that government had prepared. England has by far the largest share of the UK population and so would always report the highest absolute number of deaths. Additionally, England has by far the greatest population density in the UK. England contains the metropolis of Greater London, where 8.9 million people are packed into an area smaller in extent than Lothian. The more that people are tightly packed together the more likely it becomes that they will encounter a contagious virus and contract it.
We are not out of the woods yet. More people will die before this is over, which is why it’s foolish to talk of any return to normal. We will only know the true figures for those who have died once this is all over. Numbers are impersonal, but every single figure added to those statistics represents a human being, a shattered family, a grieving partner, a devastated child, a mourning friend. A single figure added to the statistics represents many thousands of tears.
We might not know the exact numbers, but can be certain that the UK will be one of the worst affected European states, with a death toll comparable to or in excess of those in Spain or Italy. Yet unlike Italy or Spain where the virus took hold early, the UK had advance warning but refused to implement lockdown measures even when neighbouring European states were doing so. The British Government’s response has been confused, inept, and mired in incompetence. Absolutely no one is looking to the UK as a shining beacon in how to handle the epidemic, despite Boris Johnson’s empty words as he returned to Downing Street on Monday about how many people were looking at the UK’s “apparent success”. This is a government which has failed in its most basic duty – the duty to keep its citizens safe.
And finally, because we could all do with some cheering up during these difficult times…
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