England has proportionally the most ‘excess deaths’ in Europe. But this does not prove that Britain’s rulers and/or its medical services are to blame for it. These claims are based on misinterpreting the statistics.

31 July 2020 By Paul Martin

Britain has suffered a worse death toll overall in extra deaths during 2020, than any other country in Europe. This finding, by the British government’s Office of National Statistics, has fuelled a wave of alarmist media reports — and most of the media, and of course an array of opponents, have pointed almost-triumphant fingers of blame at the government.

On closer examination, however, the picture is considerably different.

It really shows is that Britain’s largest cities were nowhere near top of the list of European cities with the highest proportion of deaths from Covid.

By the week ending 29 May, England’s excess deaths from February onwards were 7.55 per cent higher than the average mortality rate between 2015 and 2019. Spain was the second-worst in Europe at 6.65 per cent, followed by Scotland (5.11 per cent), Belgium (3.89 per cent) and Wales (2.78 per cent). Sweden was next in the list of 23 European countries on 2.26 per cent.

What has made Britain such a black spot for what is euphemistically termed ‘excess deaths’ is that most European countries had their unexpectedly high death tolls only in one or two locations, whereas in England these ‘spikes’ took place in many cities or areas at roughly the same time. A similar phenomenon was observed in Sweden.

“While England did not have the highest peak mortality,” the Office of National Statistics wrote, “it did have the longest continuous period of excess mortality of any country compared, resulting in it having the highest levels of excess mortality in Europe for the period.”

The excess deaths, it said, had been widespread, “from Cornwall to Shetland and everywhere in between”.

Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, chairman of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at Cambridge University, said it was obvious that in both England and Sweden, Covid was “seeded” by people returning from winter holidays in Europe’s already-infected Covid hotspots, especially in the Italian Alps and in north-eastern Spain.

It appears that, proportionally, holidays in these regions are much more popular with British and Swedish holidaymakers than, say, with French or other European holidaymakers. Travel figures can be adduced to confirm this trend. (Incidentally, German statistics were not included in the comparative survey, for technical reasons.)

Whether that seeding-from-holidays factor fully accounts for the English ‘lead’ in the extra deaths table is hard to assess. Scientists have pointed out that Covid has a greater proportion of fatalities in people who are overweight. Britons are proportionally the second-most overweight people in Europe.

It is currently fashionable for the media and politicians to claim that it was a one-week delay in announcing a full lockdown that caused the virus to spread exponentially across British society and cause the high number of deaths.

Yet, another theory is that English hospitals tended to find space only for seriously ill Covid patients, so that early medical intervention was denied to a larger proportion of sick English patients compared with those in other European countries.

There are other ways of measuring how well or badly a country was able to deal with those identified as having been infected by Covid.

The simplest test is the survival rate for those admitted to hospital.

There is little doubt that Britain had a disappointingly high ratio of Covid deaths from those admitted to hospital. But even that figure is difficult to compare with Europe’s, as each country uses different measurements.

Measuring excess (extra) deaths should be a much more accurate figure — by reflecting a fuller picture of the devastation caused by the disease. It combines those who died of Covid, those whose deaths may have been associated with Covid as one factor, and those who died from other causes.

Yet even here, since England had the greatest ‘spread’ of the disease in Europe, it seems difficult to authoritatively blame the government, or the country’s medical services or infrastructure.

Also subsequent to the cut-off date for the figures collated by the Office of National Statistics, there were no extra deaths. In fact, slightly fewer-than-average deaths happened in each of the subsequent weeks. That is good news.

But it could simply be that some people who died from non-Covid causes would have died in those weeks but had their demise accelerated. They may either have caught Covid fatally, or may have died from having their treatment delayed or not diagnosed early enough.