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Why England was hit harder by Covid-19 than any other country in Europe

The findings of the ONS show how a wider spread of infection, and less severe or timely measures to respond to it, are factors in the deaths of many thousands of people.

By Michael Goodier

England had the highest levels of excess mortality in Europe during the most crucial months of the Covid-19 pandemic so far, according to data released today.

A report by the Office for National Statistics compares the excess death figures across all European countries where data was available for the first half of 2020, and standardises the numbers to control for differences in population size and age structure. It finds that between 3 January and 12 June this year, England had the highest overall levels of excess mortality on the continent.

Excess deaths refer to the number of extra deaths above the expected level. This metric has been described by government scientists and ministers throughout the crisis as the most useful measure of comparison between countries, because Covid-19 death statistics are compiled using different methods and in some cases represent and incomplete picture.

England’s excess mortality rate was 8 per cent higher than expected over the first half of 2020. This figure is higher than other countries because England’s disease curve lasted longer, with the death toll continuing to rise later into the year.

Spain had experienced a higher peak of excess mortality (139 per cent above baseline, compared to England’s 108 per cent peak). But Spain, Italy, and other countries were better at “flattening the curve” and bringing the death levels down.

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The UK’s higher mortality was also a result of the fact that the disease was not contained to a local area, as it was in Italy and Spain.

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That finding chimes with the New Statesman’s own data analysis of the UK’s comparative performance, published as part of the Anatomy of a Crisis special edition, which found that the UK was slower to introduce lockdown and quicker to ease restrictions than other countries.

The chart below shows the relative excess death levels over time by country.


Spain had the highest peak relative age-standardised mortality rate of all European countries

Relative age-standardised mortality rates















Source: ONS


Looking at the whole six-month period, it becomes evident that England has suffered higher mortality than any other country.


England had the highest overall excess mortality rate

Cumulative excess age-standardised mortality rate















Source: ONS


Of the ten worst affected cities in Europe, half are in the UK. Madrid experienced 26 per cent more deaths than usual in the first half of 2020, followed by Barcelona (17 per cent), Birmingham (16 per cent), London (15 per cent) and Manchester (13 per cent).


Madrid had the highest excess mortality rate

Top ten cities for cumulative age-standardised excess mortality



Edward Morgan, a demographer at the ONS, explained in a statement that “excess mortality was geographically widespread throughout the UK during the pandemic, whereas it was more geographically localised in most countries of Western Europe.

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

[See also: how the UK trailed the world in responding to the pandemic]