The UK is, by most measures, faring worse than other countries in managing the Covid-19 pandemic, with one of the highest total and current death rates in the world. More than 80,000 people have died with Covid-19 mentioned on their death certificate according to the ONS and, due to the high level of hospitalisations across the country, this number is sadly guaranteed to continue rising.
The latest figures, released today by the ONS, also put the scale of deaths in 2020 into sobering context. The data show that 608,002 people died of all causes in England and Wales between the weeks ending 3 January 2020 and 1 January 2021. This is 75,925 more deaths than have occurred on average during the equivalent weeks over the last five years, an excess of 14 per cent.
It also means that 2020 is now second only to 1918, the year of the Spanish Flu, as the worst year for deaths occurring in England and Wales (i.e. excluding military deaths overseas). While societal differences and medical improvements mean that few useful comparisons can be drawn between the situation now and a century ago based on raw numbers, the fact that 2020 has been a remarkable year for mortality cannot be disputed.
While more people died than any year since 1918, the UK population is now far larger than it was then – so for a true comparison, we should divide the number of deaths by the number of people.
Looking at “excess deaths” – the number above what would be expected over the previous five years – also allows us to take rising life expectancies over the past century into account. Analysing the figures this way shows that the level of excess deaths in 2020 was the highest since the Second World War.
How does the rest of the world compare?
The UK has not suffered uniquely – Covid-19 is a pandemic, which is by definition global. However, Britain has suffered one of the highest confirmed death tolls in the world from the virus. Only Mexico, India, Brazil and the US have recorded a higher figure, according to the daily Covid-19 deaths collated by Johns Hopkins University.
In general, countries with more people have recorded a greater number of deaths. When the size of its population is taken into account, the UK fares worse than Mexico, India, Brazil and the US. The only medium-sized countries with higher death rates than Britain are Czechia, Italy, and Belgium.
Based on the latest Covid-19 death figures, the UK’s position is a grim one. According to deaths by date reported, the UK recorded a daily average of 933 deaths over the last week, or 1.4 deaths for every 100,000 people. Only Lithuania, Czechia, and the tiny countries of Liechtenstein and Gibraltar recorded a higher rate.
When compared to the rest of the G20, the UK’s death toll is currently the worst of any major country – and appears to be travelling in one direction: upwards.
While this is positive news, the number of deaths is likely to continue to rise over the next few weeks – even if everyone were to be vaccinated in the next five minutes. That’s because it may take up to a week for people to notice their symptoms and get tested, and deaths from the disease tend to lag two or three weeks behind cases – which have been on the rise. The impact of household mixing over Christmas won’t have fully shown up in the UK’s death figures yet and given the large numbers currently in hospital, deaths are certain to keep rising.
We may have just seen one of the worst years for death in living memory – but the total cost of the pandemic is yet to be determined.