Britain has now officially overtaken Italy as the country with the highest COVID-19 death toll in Europe, according to statistics released by the government on Tuesday.
There have been 29,427 recorded deaths of people who had tested positive for coronavirus in the UK so far — 112 more than the 29,315 people who have reportedly died of the virus in Italy.
However, while the government only reports on deaths where the deceased tested positive for the virus, the Guardian reports that the true number might be even higher if you look at death certificates.
Across England and Wales, the death toll where certificates referenced COVID-19 stands at 29,648 — which, when you add Scotland and Northern Ireland, takes the total UK number to 32,313. And that doesn't account for what is suspected to be a high number of unreported cases of deaths linked to COVID-19 — for example, in care homes.
The deaths were described as "a massive tragedy" by Dominic Raab, the UK’s foreign secretary, although he dismissed claims that the UK had the worst record in Europe as “speculation” as he urged people not to draw comparisons with the mortality rate in other countries until the pandemic is over.
The UK is now officially the 2nd worst country in the world for #coronavirus deaths. Latest figure is 29,427, with Italy (previously the worst hit country In Europe) now at 29,315 #COVID19 deaths. And for 3rd day in a row, UK has failed to meet Gov't's target of 100K tests a day.— Bill Neely (@BillNeelyNBC) May 5, 2020
There have since been calls from experts and the government’s opposition for a public inquiry into the death toll. On April 30, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called an inquiry “inevitable”.
“This is a very sobering and unwelcome milestone,” Dr Claudia Paoloni, president of the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association trade union, told the Guardian. “It’s of extreme concern that the UK now has the largest number of COVID deaths in Europe.”
“There will have to be a full investigation [into the government’s] handling of the COVID response in due course – a public inquiry – to understand why we are experiencing such large numbers in comparison to the rest of Europe,” she said.
“It puts into question whether the government’s tactics at the start of the pandemic were sufficiently fast, and especially whether the lockdown should have happened earlier and whether we should have been better prepared with increased capacity for viral testing and contact tracing from the start. Both have proven inadequate,” she added.
It's official: the UK has overtaken Italy to have the highest #COVID19 death toll in Europe - at least on the basis of the daily figures we get from govts each day. But is this as significant as it really sounds? And can these numbers really be relied upon? A thread: pic.twitter.com/MaRrWSoj2V— Ed Conway (@EdConwaySky) May 5, 2020
Indeed, the only country in the world with a higher reported COVID-19 death toll than the UK right now is the United States, with 72,284 confirmed deaths so far.
However, some commentators have urged caution about comparing Britain and Italy’s mortality figures.
The BBC points towards the UK having a slightly larger population — the UK is the 23rd largest country in the world with a population of 66 million, while Italy is 24th with nearly 61 million. The geographical spread of COVID-19 deaths in the UK is far more spread out than in Italy too: Half of all deaths in Italy were in Lombardy (with a population of 10 million), while just a fifth of UK deaths are in London (which has a population of 9 million).
Meanwhile, Professor David Spiegelhalter, a government scientific advisor and chair of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at Cambridge University, has said that the COVID-19 pandemic “is not Eurovision” and that comparisons to other countries are “pointless.”
“We are not doing very well and it’s been another very bad week,” Prof. Spiegelhalter said. “I really don’t like this league table of who’s top and who’s not, but there’s no denying that these are really serious numbers.”
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to announce on Sunday whether the UK will begin easing lockdown measures.