England had highest COVID-19 death rate in Europe, data confirms

July 30, 2020, 2:17 PM UTC

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The U.K.’s statistics agency has confirmed that England was hit harder by COVID-19 than any other European country in the first half of this year, even adjusting for population size and other factors.

Confronted with this analysis, Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed the country had had “massive success” in fighting the pandemic, which has so far claimed nearly 46,000 lives there.

COVID-19 death counts are notoriously difficult to compare between countries, because of differing methods for recording such deaths. So statisticians are increasing looking at the straightforward question of “excess mortality”—how many more people than usual died within a certain timeframe, compared with the same period in recent years—to provide meaningful comparisons.

This approach also has the benefit of picking up deaths that were not directly caused by COVID-19 infection but were nonetheless the result of the pandemic, for example people who died because overwhelmed hospitals could not treat them in time.

In England, there was recently a bit of a scandal over how COVID-19 deaths were being counted, after it emerged that the Public Health England agency had been including every person who had been diagnosed with the disease and subsequently died—even if they got hit by a bus months later.

Against this backdrop of likely overcounting, surely a simple look at excess mortality would improve the picture?

On Thursday, the U.K.’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) provided such an analysis, and the results weren’t pretty.

It is now clear that overall, during the first half of this year, England recorded more excess deaths than any other European country—around 7.5% above average, compared with 6.6% in Spain, 5.1% in Scotland, 3.9% in Belgium and 2.8% in Wales.

England also suffered Europe’s second-highest peak of excess mortality, with only Spain experiencing a worse peak.

What’s more, the ONS’s analysis (based on data from the EU’s Eurostat agency) shows how the coronavirus hit the U.K. more diffusely than other European countries.

Across the whole of the U.K.—which apart from England also includes three other nations: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—every single local authority experienced higher-than-usual death counts between the week ending April 3 and the week ending May 8.

“While none of the four U.K. nations had a peak mortality level as high as Spain or the worst-hit local areas of Spain and Italy, excess mortality was geographically widespread throughout the U.K. during the pandemic, whereas it was more geographically localized in most countries of Western Europe,” said ONS health analysis senior research officer Edward Morgan in a statement.

“Combined with the relatively slow downward ‘tail’ of the pandemic in the U.K., this meant that by the end of May, England had seen the highest overall relative excess mortality out of all the European countries compared.”

In terms of reported death counts, on Thursday morning the U.K. was at 45,961, Italy at 35,129, France at 30,238, Spain at 28,441, and Russia at 13,673. Russia had the most reported cases at 828,990, with the U.K. in second place with 301,455 cases.

According to the government, there were 83 “COVID-19 associated” deaths in the U.K. on Wednesday. So far, 41,360 people have died in England, 2,491 in Scotland, 1,554 in Wales and 556 in Northern Ireland.

Johnson was asked about the ONS analysis on Thursday, and said the country owes it to families of the deceased to “continue our work in driving the virus down.”

“Clearly this country has had a massive success now in reducing the numbers of those tragic deaths,” the prime minister said. “We’ve got it at the moment under some measure of control. The numbers of deaths are well, well down.”

P.S.: One peculiarity of the ONS’s Thursday analysis is that it makes no comparison with Germany, where the official death toll so far is 9,214 and the case count is 209,139. The ONS told Fortune this was because “at the time we were working on this publication, no comparable German data was available from Eurostat.”

However, the Eurostat table linked to from the ONS’s own report does indeed include German data. “That must be new this week,” an ONS spokesperson said. “Had that German data been available on Eurostat even a week ago, we would have happily included it in our analysis.”

Eurostat told Fortune the German data was there, with the exception of data from 2015, the first year of the comparison period for determining excess mortality. The ONS insisted that it had found “no data whatsoever for Germany” in the Eurostat table, though one missing year would in any case have excluded Germany from part of its analysis.

This article was updated to include Eurostat and ONS responses regarding the absence of German data from the ONS comparison.

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