Coronavirus: Why is the UK's COVID-19 death toll higher than other EU countries?

Members of clinical staff care for a patient with coronavirus in the intensive care unit at the Royal Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, UK, Tuesday May 5, 2020
Members of clinical staff care for a patient with coronavirus in the intensive care unit at the Royal Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, UK, Tuesday May 5, 2020 Copyright Neil Hall/APAP
By Euronews
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One expert has told Euronews it's because the UK did not lock down quickly enough.


The UK has overtaken Italy to become the country worst hit by COVID-19 in Europe, according to latest government death counts.

The disease has now killed 29,427 people in the UK, compared with 29,315 in Italy.

While current death tolls give a broad idea of how badly a country has been hit, different ways of counting fatalities mean comparisons are difficult. For example, some nations only tally deaths in hospitals, while others include those in care homes.

"There are different ways of counting deaths, as we know," said Dominic Raab, the UK's foreign minister.

"We've had that debate in this country. We now publish data that includes all deaths in all settings, and not all countries do that.

"So I'm not sure that the international comparisons work unless you reliably know that all countries are measuring in the same way."

But Professor Martin McKee from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told Euronews that while there may be some discrepancies between countries, the reason for the UK's high death toll was that it didn't lockdown quick enough.

"It's actually quite simple," Professor Mckee said. "If we look at the countries that responded quickly and got in at the very beginning, they're the ones that have managed to contain the epidemic."

He then explained the importance of locking down early to stop transmission and its link with keeping the infection rate or R number down.

"We typically think that one person infects between 2.5 and 3 other people," he said. "Say they do that every day, they'll infect 3 then 9 then 27 and it goes up to about 20,000 in a matter of about 10 days".

"That's the challenge if you can get the R number down to 1.5 then you can reduce that number from 20,000 additional cases down to about 40".

"So even a few days makes a huge difference."

The UK government has been criticised for not enabling widespread testing early in March. In the House of Commons on Tuesday A&E doctor and MP, Rosena Allin-Khan told health minister Matt Hancock that the lack of testing had cost lives in the UK.

"The testing strategy has been non-existent. Community testing was scrapped, mass testing was slow to roll out, and testing figures are now being manipulated."

She says the government has failed to reach its own target of 100,000 tests by the end of April. Hancock responded to Allin-Khan's criticism by telling the MP to "watch her tone". This prompted Dr Allin-Khan to tweet: "I will not 'watch my tone' when dozens of NHS care staff are dying unnecessarily".

Scientists and health experts agree there are many things that could have been done at the beginning of the outbreak to avoid the virus spreading as much as it did, but the UK government didn't necessarily have the capacity to make them happen.

"At the very beginning the World Health Organization said 'test, test, test'," Professor Mckee added. "The UK was not in a position to do that. Its public health infrastructure had been weakened".

"I think it's pretty obvious to say the government has had other things on its mind for the last four years".


"It did have a major exercise in emergency planning in 2016 but the results of that have never been published but we know some of them have not been acted upon."

Other European countries have started lifting lockdowns but Professor McKee says the UK is behind the curve compared to Italy and Spain.

"We probably have passed the peak in hospital deaths but not in care homes. There are essentially two epidemics in the UK so it is a bit premature to be thinking [about lifting restrictions]."

He says that to lift the lockdown the UK needs to follow EU guidelines and keep the reproduction number below 1 and test every easing of restriction against that.

According to the WHO and the EU, having an appropriate testing scheme in place is key before easing restrictions.


But Professor McKee says he believes the UK is simply not ready in terms of testing and tracing.

"We need to know much more about the levels of immunity in the population and how it is spreading and in particular how it is spreading in care homes."

And he worries the UK government isn't following other countries in setting up measures to contain the virus.

"We do tend to be going our own way. For example with an app which is different from the one being used in other countries and has been tried and tested."

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