UK’s excess deaths ‘highest in the world’ – what does it mean?

The UK has suffered the highest level of excess deaths during the coronavirus crisis of any country in the world, new analysis suggests.

Samples are taken at a coronavirus testing facility in Temple Green Park and Ride, Leeds
Samples are taken at a coronavirus testing facility in Temple Green Park and Ride, Leeds

Comparison of official figures from 19 governments compiled by the Financial Times has found that total excess deaths in the UK stand at 891 per million of population, higher than Italy, Belgium or Spain, the next worst-affected countries.

In terms of the total number of excess deaths, the UK sits behind only the United States, which has a much larger population.

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Excess deaths in the UK are 65% above what would normally be expected at this time of year, the FT’s analysis suggests - an increase only surpassed by Peru, which suffered an outbreak of Dengue fever before being hit by coronavirus.

Because excess deaths in many European countries have now returned to normal after spiking during the height of the outbreak, the UK’s position as the worst affected country per million of population where data is available is unlikely to change.

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However, comprehensive figures for excess deaths are not yet available for countries including China, Brazil and Russia, where large outbreaks of coronavirus have taken or are still taking place.

What are ‘excess deaths’?

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Excess mortality is a calculation of all deaths recorded in a country or region, subtracting the average number of deaths over the same period in the previous five years.

It is considered to be the most reliable and comprehensive measurement of the impact of a pandemic, because it doesn’t just capture deaths directly caused by an illness - in this case, Covid-19 - but also the wider impact on the health service and economy of an area. It also reveals the full toll even when testing capacity is too low to identify all those who have died of coronavirus.

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The UK Government has said that a final calculation of excess mortality is the only way to compare the relative effectiveness of different countries’ responses to the pandemic.

What does it mean for the UK?

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A wide range of factors contribute to the impact of the outbreak in each country - for instance, the strength of its health service or its testing capacity. But figures compiled by the FT have shown a strong link between how early governments imposed lockdown measures, and the level of excess deaths.

By plotting total excess deaths against the number of coronavirus infections per million on lockdown day, the figures show that countries like Germany, which locked down with fewer than 10 infections per million, has had a much lower death toll than the UK, Italy, Spain or Sweden, where lockdown was imposed when the infection level was between two and five times higher.

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What do the figures say about Scotland?

According to the FT’s analysis, Scotland has suffered 4,600 excess deaths, 53% above what would be expected over the same period in a normal year. That is lower than the 69% increase in England, and below the total for the UK. Excess deaths in Wales are 41% higher than average, and 42% higher in Northern Ireland. The worst affected region of the UK has been London, where 9,700 excess deaths have been recorded - 130% above average.

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The figures are likely to be poured over in months and years to come as governments examine their policy responses, with comparisons between countries - and within the UK.

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Joy Yates

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Editorial Director

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