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6 May 2020updated 07 May 2020 9:32am

First Thoughts: Excess death rates, public confidence in the media and the Daily Mail’s airlift

Contrary to what government advisers say, we already have figures suggesting that Britain is recording the highest number of excess deaths in Europe. 

By Peter Wilby

Graphs shown at the government’s teatime press briefings suggest that the UK’s coronavirus deaths, having overtaken Italy’s, are now the highest in Europe. But for the true picture, the scientific advisers say, we should await figures for “excess deaths” – the number from any cause above those expected for the equivalent period in a normal year. Adjusted for population size, these strip out differences in whether doctors record Covid-19 on death certificates.

What we are not told is that such figures already exist from medical researchers at EuroMOMO who routinely monitor mortality across the continent. At the time of writing, England has the highest excess deaths in Europe. Those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have also been substantially up in recent weeks, but not to such an extent. Graphs from 24 countries show that in, for example, Greece, Denmark and Ireland, deaths so far this year are not substantially higher than normal. Other countries such as Italy, Spain, France and the Netherlands show a spike that, in late April, declined steeply. England’s excess deaths – more than a quarter higher than any other country’s – peaked in early April and stayed high. These graphs can be combined into a single graph. But I suspect it is one the government won’t be showing us.

Trust in the media

Are ministers taking a leaf out of Donald Trump’s book? When the Guardian reported that Boris Johnson’s aide Dominic Cummings sat on Sage, the scientific advisory group, Downing Street riposted that “public confidence in the media has collapsed… partly because of ludicrous stories such as this”. When the Health Service Journal alleged that testing figures were artificially boosted to meet the 100,000-a-day target by including test kits in transit, the Department of Health ruled there were “no legs in the story”. When Panorama reported on personal protection equipment (PPE) shortages, Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, claimed the BBC’s reputation “for fair and balanced reporting” was threatened.

According to YouGov, trust in the media hasn’t “collapsed”: it’s long been very low but, since early March, trust in BBC News has risen (to 50 per cent at one stage), as has trust in journalists on upmarket papers (nearly 40 per cent).

Ministers haven’t quite adopted Trump’s language of “fake news” and “lamestream media”, but they are drifting in a similar direction.

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The Beijing Airlift

One newspaper ministers won’t be criticising is the Daily Mail, which has raised £5m to airlift PPE from China to Britain’s “coronavirus front line”. The enterprise has yielded five self-congratulatory front-page splashes, many pictures of nurses happily masked and gowned, and praise from the Health Secretary Matt Hancock (“a boost to the national effort”).

I am reminded of another celebrated Mail airlift. As the Viet Cong approached Saigon in 1975, David English, then the Mail’s editor, chartered a plane to rescue children from Vietnamese orphanages and bring them to Britain, apparently believing that savage communists would cut off their heads.

English ordered 150 orphans but hacks found, with difficulty, only 99. He flew out with his top writers and photographers and, in combat uniform, helped carry children to the plane and changed nappies on the flight. Somehow, I can’t see the current editor, the old Etonian Geordie Greig, doing that.

Opening hours

Pubs and restaurants face ruin, it is said. After weeks, perhaps months, of closure, how will they cope with an additional period when they can admit only limited numbers? With a bit of ingenuity, I would say. Many customers will still have the money they would otherwise have spent on meals and pub evenings out. The trick is to find a way of extracting it from them. Could pubs and restaurants auction off entry slots or offer them as lottery prizes? Could they charge extra – the opposite of “happy hours” – at peak times? A few pints in the pub or a curry at the local Indian will, for a time, be in short supply. And for scarce goods you can get away with premium prices.

This article appears in the 06 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Remaking Britain