U.K.'s coronavirus death toll could be highest in Europe, new figures suggest

In a single seven-day period, COVID-19 accounted for more than half of all deaths in London.
Image: Staff wear personal protective equipment (PPE) as they work at the Royal Liverpool Hospital in Liverpool,
Royal Liverpool Hospital in northwest England.Paul Ellis / AFP - Getty Images file

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By Patrick Smith

LONDON — The United Kingdom could have the highest death toll from the coronavirus outbreak of any nation in Europe, according to data published Tuesday.

The Office for National Statistics, which is independent and releases figures separately from the U.K. government, said there had been 29,648 deaths related to COVID-19 in England and Wales in the week ending April 24 — compared to the official figure for the same period of 21,399.

When figures are included for Scotland and Northern Ireland, the total provisional figure rises to 32,313 — higher than that of Italy, so far the worst hit country in Europe, which had reported 29,079 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The ONS figure, which is a third higher than the government number, includes all deaths where COVID-19 is mentioned on a death certificate, including as a suspected cause of death. The lower government figure is based on deaths following positive tests, which mostly take place in hospitals.

Figures are not directly comparable between nations due to differences in population density and differing statistical practices — Italy's figure does not include suspected cases, for example — and government scientific advisers and medical experts have cautioned against a straight numerical ranking.

But in any case the U.K. has seen a higher number of deaths than several similar-size economies and the new data will add to the chorus of criticism the government faces in how it has handled the outbreak.

Many of the U.K. deaths occurred in nursing homes where elderly people, often with underlying health conditions, are typically not offered coronavirus tests when presenting symptoms. The Care Quality Commission, which regulates residential and respite care of the elderly and other vulnerable people, has reported 6,391 deaths related to COVID-19 in nursing homes from April 10 to May 1.

Such is the scale of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.K., in the week ending April 24 more than 11,000 more people died in England and Wales than compared to a five-year average, the ONS said. Coronavirus accounted for more than half of all deaths in London in the week ending April 24, and more than a third in the northwest and northeast of England.

In a rare piece of good news, the overall death toll reported by ONS for England and Wales for the week ending April 24 was 354 lower than the previous week, a possible sign that social distancing is working.

Whereas millions of people have gone back to work across Europe, the U.K. was late to impose social distancing and the country remains under lockdown, amid growing complaints from frustrated Britons and some lawmakers.

The economy has been brought to a near standstill, with a historic business bail-out underway, and schools are shut to all but a handful of children. New car sales fell by 97 percent annually in April to the lowest point since the end of World War II, according to an auto industry survey.

The U.K. government has been strongly criticized for not recognizing the dangers of the outbreak and imposing a lockdown sooner.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself contracted COVID-19 and in April spent a week in a hospital intensive care unit and only returned to his full duties this week.

Reuters contributed to this report.