Has the UK actually been hit the most by COVID-19?

The figures suggest the worst of the pandemic is over. The gruesome daily death count seems to be easing and Boris is back on his feet, more in need of a haircut than ever before. But, aren’t we all.

What’s more, there’s increasing talk of getting back to work, opening up shops and, yes, letting hairdressers get to work on fixing the problems of DIY jobs in front of the bathroom mirror.

But is it wise to talk about opening up the economy, when we don’t know for sure what the consequences will be? We can’t be entirely sure the numbers the government is using are correct – there are delays in getting the data and big discrepancies depending on the data source you use.

This graph shows, up to the week ending 17 April, the total number of deaths in England and Wales, compiled weekly by the Office of National Statistics (ONS). It also shows the average number of deaths each week over the previous five years. Clearly, from the beginning of April the number of deaths has shot up, well above the five year average. For the week ending 17 April, the difference was 11,854 – that’s how any more people died that week than you’d normally expect. And yet the numbers reported in the governments daily press briefings told us just 5,589 people died in hospitals of COVID-19 that week, over 6,000 less than the ONS figures seem to be indicating. Unless there’s another, even more rampant killer out there. Deaths from hairdresser scissors, perhaps.

There will be some who have died from other causes, perhaps because they didn’t get treatment because the focus has been on the virus. The difference isn’t too important – whether people died of COVID-19 or because of COVID-19 is immaterial. These are people who wouldn’t have died if the virus hadn’t been around, and for the week ending 17 April it appears to be TWICE the figures the government supplies at their press conference each day.

Actually, the difference is even more pronounced because the ONS figures only cover England and Wales, whereas the COVID-19 figures the government has been feeding us include the entire UK.

Does this mean, when the government told us, sadly, that we had past the 20 thousand mark a few days ago, they were wrong? Yes. We passed that mark a fortnight ago and, by their own numbers, things have got much worse since then.

In a normal year, by 17th April, you would have expected 185 thousand people to have died in England and Wales, for whatever reason. This year, the number was 207 thousand – that’s 22 thousand more than usual.

That suggests we passed the 20 thousand mark before then – remembering you have to add totals for Scotland and Wales totals to the ONS figures.

If that sounds like nothing more than a statistical anomaly, bear in mind that to the 17th April the numbers we’d been fed in government press briefings had a cumulative total of just under 5,600. The official number for the entire UK was around a quarter of the additional deaths reported just for England and Wales.

A quarter! Now, these figures might settle down. We know there are delays in the compilations of the COVID-19 deaths, and as the number of deaths each week subsides then the differential will, no doubt, reduce. But it’s safe to assume that the UK total is, at least, twice what’s being reported by the government each day. That would mean, by far, Britain is seeing the highest death rate in Europe and, on a per capita basis, by far the worst in the world. Unless everyone else is under-reporting to the same extent.

Something to think about as we consider re-opening the economy.

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