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How the UK suffered 50,000 Covid-19 deaths – the highest number in Europe

Only the US, Brazil, India and Mexico have recorded higher coronavirus death tolls than Britain. 

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The UK became the first country in Europe to reach the unwanted milestone of 50,000 total deaths from Covid-19 on Wednesday 11 November, when 595 new fatalities were recorded – the highest daily total since the pandemic’s peak in April. According to government figures, this means a total of 50,365 people in the UK have died from the pandemic. Only the United States, Brazil, India and Mexico have recorded higher death tolls globally.

 

But the true number of Covid-19 deaths is likely to be even higher. The figures published on the government’s website include only those who died from Covid-19 symptoms within 28 days of testing positive from the virus.

Separate statistics published by the Office for National Statistics, the National Records of Scotland and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, which measure the number of Covid-19 deaths by counting the number of coronavirus mentions on death certificates, suggest the number of casualties has reached almost 70,000. Many of these deaths occurred among people living in care homes.

The news of the UK passing 50,000 milestone comes as England attempts to curb a second wave of Covid-19 by closing non-essential businesses in a one-month lockdown that some critics say was imposed too late. Meanwhile, Wales has relaxed restrictions after a two-week “firebreak” lockdown. Restrictions in Northern Ireland are also due to be relaxed this week while Scotland has a five-tier system. While the full impact of these restrictions is yet to be seen, the number of cases and deaths continues to rise. The UK now has the highest Covid-19 death rate in Europe due, in large part, to the high number of deaths during the first wave.

 

The UK was the slowest major economy to act at the beginning of the pandemic, potentially costing thousands of lives. A New Statesman analysis found that most countries introduced strict restrictions once people started dying as a result of Covid-19. The UK, by contrast, allowed deaths to rise before implementing restrictions. Those restrictions were maintained to a greater degree than other European countries even after the first wave began to subside. While some countries, such as the Czech Republic, France and Italy, enjoyed a relatively relaxed summer and autumn before cases and deaths began rising again, the UK had stricter rules in place. The graphic below shows how stringent restrictions were on a scale from 0 to 100, as measured by Oxford University’s Covid-19 Government Response Tracker.

 

As deaths started to rise significantly, most countries tightened restrictions to curb the spread of the virus. France entered a second national lockdown on 30 October. People are allowed to leave their homes to buy essential goods, seek medical help, go to work if they are unable to work from home and exercise for one hour a day. In Germany, restaurants, bars and gyms in some parts of the country have been closed until the end of November. Italy has a three-tier regional lockdown system, as well as a national curfew at night. Spain has also imposed a curfew, as well as a limit on public and private gatherings of six people. Similar restrictions exist in parts of Belgium.

But the UK may have again been too slow to act. Boris Johnson rejected advice from Sage to impose a new lockdown in September and Labour leader Keir Starmer called for a “circuit breaker” on 13 October. In response to Wednesday’s figures, the British Medical Association (BMA) said the new data showed poor preparation by the UK authorities.

“This is a point that should never have been reached,” said Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair. He added: “Today’s figure is a terrible indictment of poor preparation, poor organisation by the government, insufficient infection control measures, coupled with late and often confusing messaging for the public.”

The UK is the fifth country worldwide to officially pass 50,000 deaths. Despite restrictions across Europe, the UK’s close neighbours are also struggling to control the pandemic. Spain, Italy and France have recorded sharp surges in the number of new Covid-19 deaths.

There have been more than 1.2 million coronavirus cases officially recorded in the UK since the beginning of the pandemic in early March. Despite promising news about an upcoming Covid-19 vaccine, it may still be months before it is available to the general public.

Nicu Calcea is a data journalist at New Statesman Media Group