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England had the worst level of excess mortality of any country in Europe during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, according to analysis by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
The report published on Thursday morning states that, across the UK, the deaths were geographically widespread – every local authority area experienced excess mortality between the week ending April 3 and the week ending May 8, 2020 – while other western European countries saw more localised mortality.
While England did not have the highest peak mortality, it took longer to get back to lower levels, resulting in the longest continuous period of excess mortality of any country in Europe included in the comparison. Up to June 12, its excess mortality figures were worse than anywhere else.
Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary, described the official confirmation of the figures as “a devastating moment”.
“Every life lost is a tragedy and leaves behind grieving families. We can no longer hide from the fact the government has not handled this crisis well and needs to urgently learn lessons from its mistakes,” he said.
“Boris Johnson must now take responsibility for why we were so badly prepared. As we start to see a resurgence in other parts of the world, ministers need to urgently outline the steps they are taking to better protect people and save lives in the months ahead.”
A closer look at the data shows that England’s relative cumulative age-standardised mortality rates (rcASMRs) – the measure used to compare mortality rates between nations – stood 7.61% up on the average annual mortality rates between 2015 and 2019, for people of all ages and genders.
The UK as a whole came second only to England, with the rcASMRs up by 6.94% on the average. To put that in context, the next highest nation was Spain, which had a rcASMRs increase of 6%.
The data makes clear that it is England that pulled the UK’s total excess mortality rate up so high – though the three other nations did also measure increases. Scotland was up by 5.09%, Wales 2.81% and Northern Ireland 1.91%.
Dr Veena Raleigh, senior fellow at The King’s Fund, said the figures raised fears that the UK could “slide even further down the life expectancy league tables”.
“The priority for the UK is to control the pandemic and learn lessons ahead of a potential second wave, but it is also essential to tackle the underlying reasons for stalling life expectancy in recent years – many of which contribute to poor Covid-19 outcomes.
“This requires increased effort in prevention and public health, action to tackle the underlying socio-economic inequalities driving much of the preventable ill health, and a cross-government strategy to reduce health inequalities.”
The government has previously warned against comparing the UK’s coronavirus death rate with that of other nations, as there are some major discrepancies in the way in which different authorities count the toll.
The ONS release is the first time excess mortality figures – regarded by many as the most reliable way to measure the true impact of Covid-19 – have been compared across Europe in the context of the crisis, giving a much more stable view of how the nations compare.
However, the ONS has noted that data for the UK are based on date of registration rather than date of death, while most other European countries are based on date of death. That means the UK’s figures may in fact be even worse than they appear here.
While England’s death tally was highest cumulatively, other nations saw much more pronounced peaks in localised regions.
Looking at major cities, the highest peak excess mortality was in Madrid at 432.7% (in the week ending March 27) while in the UK, Birmingham had the highest peak excess mortality of any major British city at 249.7% (in the week ending April 17).
The highest peak mortality in England was in Brent, which measured 357.5% in the week ending April 17.
Meanwhile, in Bergamo, northern Italy, the highest peak excess mortality reached 847.7% in the week ending March 20.