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The UK has now paid the highest price in Europe for coronavirus, overtaking Italy as the European nation with the highest number of fatalities.
Comparing the death toll in different countries has become a cornerstone of how the public measures the scale of the crisis, and the staggering figures are likely to bolster criticism of the government’s response – particularly because the UK has a younger population than Italy, and had more time to prepare for the outbreak.
Government officials have argued, however, that different countries have tallied official coronavirus cases and deaths in different ways, making statistical comparisons challenging.
On Tuesday, the head of health analysis at the UK’s Office for National Statistics cautioned about making international comparisons, describing it as “incredibly difficult to do”.
In a Twitter thread, Nick Stripe said data on death registrations was the “fastest, most frequent and most in depth” method of reporting fatalities but that different countries report this data at different speeds, with the UK being the quickest.
He added: “So please exercise extreme caution with international comparisons We can sadly see rising numbers of deaths in the UK. Comparable international data is not yet available.”
Of course, no nation wants to admit they’re topping an entire continent’s death toll tally.
Still, it’s true that for many European countries, including the UK, the total number of coronavirus-related deaths remains unclear.
11,600 deaths in Italy unaccounted for
Italy’s daily death figures are announced each day at around 6pm by the nation’s Civil Protection Agency, which normally manages the response to natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes.
Crucially, like the UK, these figures only include deaths that were registered after the patient tested positive for Covid-19.
ISTAT – Italy’s statistics agency – reported on excess deaths for the first time since the start of the crisis on Monday, pointing to the fact that thousands of deaths across the nation had never been officially linked to coronavirus.
In its first report of the epidemic’s impact on Italy’s mortality rate, covering 86% of the population, ISTAT said that from February 21, when the first coronavirus deaths occurred, until March 31, nationwide deaths were up 39% compared with the average of the previous five years.
Of the 25,354 “excess deaths”, the coronavirus was registered by the Civil Protection Agency as the official cause for 13,710, leaving around 11,600 deaths unaccounted for. These occurred overwhelmingly in the northern part of Italy most heavily hit by the virus.
The statistics bureau said it was reasonable to assume these people either died of Covid-19 without being tested or that the extra stress on the health system due to the epidemic meant they died of other causes for which they were not treated.
Up to 9,000 deaths at home still to be accounted for in France
The death toll in France is announced daily at around 7pm, as it has been since the start of the nation’s epidemic toward the end of February.
Initially the only data being shared came from hospitals, but on April 2 health officials started to include the number of deaths coming from care homes and hospices.
Since March 1, France has reported almost 25,000 deaths, with 15,583 in hospitals and 9,312 in care homes and hospices.
Due to the complexity of gathering the data, deaths at home in France are still not included in official figures. Some doctors estimate that this figure could be as high as 9,000 extra deaths, with lower estimates coming in at around 6,000.
Health minister Olivier Veran has said the number of deaths should be made public in June, when they will be added to the country’s total as a whole.
France’s National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE) also has also published data on excess deaths, in much the same way as the ONS does in the UK.
Current data, running up to April 20, shows that on April 1 – the peak of France’s daily death toll, there were upwards of 1,000 more deaths (2,776) than were recorded in 2019 (1,689).
8,000 excess deaths in Spain not yet linked to Covid-19
As of May 1, 29,034 more deaths had been recorded in Spain than would usually be expected, according to El País – an excess of 50%.
That figure includes 20,938 deaths confirmed to have been caused by Covid-19, but 8,096 are yet to be accounted for.
The daily death toll includes everyone, no matter where they died and therefore, unlike France, includes deaths at home.
But the fact that people dying at home or in care homes and hospices are less likely to have been tested for the virus means they are not yet being counted in Spain’s official statistics, and the true number of deaths remains to be fully established.
Who is missing from the UK’s death statistics?
The ONS publishes weekly reports summarizing the number of deaths in England and Wales, which show how many more deaths have been recorded in a certain period, against the previous average.
One-third of all deaths were recorded in care homes in the week leading up to April 17. In that week, 22,351 total deaths were registered in England and Wales, according to the ONS, the highest figure since comparable records began in 1993. The average for the comparable week from 2015 to 2019 was 10,497.
In the week ending April 24, more than a fifth of all coronavirus-related deaths in England and Wales happened in care homes.
These startling figures are thought to be far lower than the true death toll across the entire UK, however. Modelling carried out by the Financial Times suggests that as many as 41,000 people had died by April 21 as either a direct or indirect consequence of Covid-19.
At Sunday’s press conference, medical director of England’s health service, Stephen Powis, said it would be some time before international comparisons of excess deaths could be made.
With additional reporting from HuffPost France and HuffPost Spain.