By Andy Bruce

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain now has Europe’s second highest official COVID-19 death toll with more than 26,000, according to figures published on Wednesday that raised questions about Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s response to the outbreak.

Some 26,097 people died across the United Kingdom after testing positive for COVID-19 as of April 28 at 1600 GMT, Public Health England (PHE) said, citing daily figures that included deaths outside of hospital settings for the first time.

That means the United Kingdom has suffered more COVID-19 deaths than France or Spain have reported, though less than Italy, which has Europe’s highest death toll and the second worst in the world after the United States.

“We must never lose sight of the fact that behind every statistic there are many human lives that have tragically been lost before their time,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told reporters. “We are still coming through the peak and…this is a delicate and dangerous moment in the crisis.”

Such a high UK death toll increases the pressure on Johnson just as opposition parties accused his government of being too slow to impose a lockdown to limit contagion from the new coronavirus, too slow to introduce mass testing and too slow to get enough protective equipment to hospitals.

Johnson returned to work on Monday after recuperating from COVID-19, which had left him gravely ill in intensive care at the peak of the coronavirus outbreak. He celebrated the birth of a baby son on Wednesday.

Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer criticised Johnson’s response to the world’s worst public health crisis since the 1918 influenza outbreak. Johnson had spoken of Britain’s “apparent success” in tackling COVID-19 in a speech to the nation on Monday.

“We are possibly on track to have one of the worst death rates in Europe,” Starmer told parliament. “Far from success, these latest figures are truly dreadful,” he added, referring to previously published data.

Starmer said his calculations showed 27,241 had died in the UK from COVID-19, the lung disease caused by the coronavirus. In mid-March the government’s chief scientific adviser said keeping Britain’s death toll below 20,000 would be a “good outcome”.

UK AND ITALY

Johnson initially resisted introducing the lockdown but changed course when projections showed a quarter of a million people could die.

Yvonne Doyle, PHE’s medical director, said the new figures put the UK roughly in line with its peers in Europe, adjusted for population.

Although international comparisons are difficult, the updated figures confirm Britain’s place among the European countries worst hit by the viral pandemic.

Italy said on Wednesday its death toll had risen to 27,682.

Like Britain, its figures are based on deaths following positive coronavirus tests in all settings.

Spain reported 24,275 deaths at the last count, less than Britain’s new toll published on Wednesday. Spain’s population is around 20 million smaller, so it has a higher prevalence of deaths per capita.

Still, early evidence for “excess deaths” – the number of deaths from all causes that exceed the average for the time of year – suggest Britain has fared poorly in comparison to other countries.

Although it takes a long time to form a full picture, academics prefer this measure to gauge the impact of an epidemic and the measures taken by countries to control it, since it is easier to compare across countries.

Official data published this week offered a flavour of the true human cost of the pandemic in Britain: 22,351 people died from all causes in England and Wales in the week to April 17, the biggest total since comparable records began in 1993.

While this was 11,854 more than average for the week, only 8,758 cases mentioned COVID-19 in death certificates, suggesting even this more comprehensive data may be undercounting the true toll.

(Reporting by Andy Bruce; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Mark Heinrich)

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