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13 October 2020updated 28 Aug 2021 9:52pm

How does the UK’s second wave of Covid-19 compare to those in other countries?

New figures reveal Britain could soon be among the worst-hit European states once again.

Europe is now in the second wave of Covid-19 – with case rates rising along with hospitalisations across the continent. The figures paint a grim picture, and suggest the UK could once more become one of the worst-hit European countries. We look at the latest data to assess how bad the situation is.

How does the UK’s case rate compare globally?

Countries do not measure cases and deaths in exactly the same way, so it is better to focus on the trends in the data rather than the individual figures. That said, the UK is experiencing some of the highest new daily cases of Covid-19 in the world. The UK reported an average of 14,391 new daily cases in the week to 12 October, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). Only France, Brazil, the US and India saw higher figures.


The data suggests the UK is in a similar position to France, based on the raw numbers – although the figures in the UK have been rising at a more alarming rate. The picture is improved somewhat for both the UK and France once we adjust for population size; smaller nations such as the Czech Republic, Belgium and the Netherlands are suffering worse outbreaks on a per-capita basis.

What about hospitalisations?

The ECDC collates figures across Europe for the number of people hospitalised due to Covid-19. These figures – based on national reports – show that the UK is now only behind France and Belgium in terms of hospitalisations per 100,000 people, and is on a much steeper upward trajectory than France.

[see also: The pandemic era: why Covid-19’s upheaval is here to stay]

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Around five people in every 100,000 were hospitalised with the virus in the week to 3 October, according to UK government data. France recorded six per 100,000 in the same week, and Belgium almost eight per 100,000 in the week to 10 October.

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The graph below suggests the UK may be the worst in Europe for this metric very soon unless its trajectory changes.


Are we seeing higher death rates?

The UK is not yet recording as many deaths as its European neighbours. Based on a seven-day rolling average, the ECDC figures show that Spain saw an average of 120 confirmed Covid-19 deaths in the seven days to 11 October. Over the seven days to 12 October, France saw an average of 71 deaths a day, while the UK saw 68. Globally, India, the US, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina are all experiencing the highest numbers of deaths. But the death rate is once more starting to creep up in the UK and across Europe.


The death rate is still very low compared with the first wave in March and April – and that is partly due to a lag when compared with cases, better hospital treatment, as well as a potentially different age profile of those affected by the virus. More testing means the UK is recording higher case figures than it would have at the same point in the first wave – however, figures show the UK’s testing system has recently been under strain.

Our case-positivity rate is now above 5 per cent

The case-positivity rate is a measure of how many tests proportionally return as positive. It can tell us two things: the overall size of the outbreak, and how comprehensively our testing system is coping with the number of new cases. The lower this number, the more confident we can be that the testing system is operating properly.

[see also: Martin Fletcher on how Boris Johnson left the UK perilously unprepared for a second wave of Covid-19]

We can think about this like fishing: if you are constantly filling your net when you bring it up, you know it is likely there are far more fish out there that you are missing. But if you cast your net wide and only catch a couple of fish, you know there probably aren’t many others out there.

The UK’s positivity rate is rapidly worsening, but it has not yet caught up with France and Spain.


The World Health Organisation has said that a case-positivity rate of under 5 per cent is one of the signs that the virus is under control and the testing system is coping. Last week, the UK surpassed that level for the first time since May, indicating that the testing system is starting to struggle with the rise in cases. However, it is nowhere near the worst in the world, with countries in South America particularly struggling on the testing front.


So where does this leave us?

The figures suggest the UK isn’t yet suffering the worst second wave of Covid-19 in Europe. But, as before, it has reached this point slightly later than some of its European neighbours and appears to be on a slightly worse trajectory. There may still be time to remedy the situation, but we know all too well how quickly Covid-19 can spread beyond reasonable control. The next few days and weeks will show whether the UK has learned the lessons of the first wave.

[see also: The New Statesman’s hyperlocal Covid-19 tracker]