Covid-19 ‘Excess Deaths’: The One Global Race Britain Doesn’t Want To Win

UK jobs rescue scheme could be the envy of the world, but our mortality rate isn’t.

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A month ago, Rishi Sunak declared at a No.10 press conference: “I can’t stand here and say I can save every single job”. A week ago, there were reports that he was looking at slashing the state subsidy in his furlough scheme from 80% of wages to 60%.

Today, the chancellor’s tone was markedly softer as he told the BBC “it breaks my heart” to see the rising jobless numbers indicated in Universal Credit claims. Gone too was any specific 60% number, replaced by a vague indication that employers would be expected to contribute to part of the subsidy.

Sunak could have been expected to lead the Downing Street press conference tonight, given the good news he had to tell about extending his furlough plan to November, and to include part-time workers returning gradually back to the labour market.

But it won’t be until the end of this month before we see exactly what he has planned in the extended scheme. So, perhaps learning the lesson of the PM’s Sunday night experience of jumping the gun before a detailed plan was ready, the chancellor stayed away.

There is also more than a strong suspicion that the Treasury was spooked by the feedback from employers who suggested they would have to sack many furloughed staff if asked to stump up significant cash to keep them at home. As I pointed out last night, the spectre of mass redundancies in the wake of the Covid crisis is what keeps many Tory MPs awake at night. Today, Sunak told Laura Kuenssberg a recession “is already happening”.

When even the fiscally hawkish Mervyn King (and a Brexiteer to boot) says cutting the 80% subsidy would be wrong, and indeed that the scheme should only be cut back once the economy recovers, you know something is up.

Instead of Sunak, we got business secretary Alok Sharma at the No.10 press conference, doing his usual act of treading political water as tricky questions were lobbed his way. Sharma - with some justification - hailed the Treasury’s job retention scheme as one of the best in the world. That’s despite the attempts by some Tory MPs to suggest that being furloughed on modest wages is like some massive “featherbedded” (copyright, Iain Duncan Smith) holiday for the workshy.

Yet while Sharma likes international comparisons on wage subsidy, the government clearly no longer likes the idea when it comes to Covid death rates. The daily ‘all settings’ mortality chart, that has for weeks compared the UK to the US, Europe and Asian countries, has itself died a death. No.10 confirmed the shift, saying “it is not possible to make like-for-like comparisons”.

In last week’s PMQs, Keir Starmer had the perfect answer when the PM cited a line from Cambridge statistician David Spiegelhalter about the problems with league tables: he waved around the government’s own charts. Tomorrow, Starmer will probably quote Spiegelhalter himself since he said it’s “important to note that we [are] way above in terms of their mortality above a group like Germany, Austria, Portugal, Denmark, Norway”.‌

It would be surprising if the Labour leader didn’t also raise today’s newest, grimmest statistics. The latest ONS study suggested that all-cause mortality (Chris Whitty’s favoured measurement) in the UK now stood at just over 50,000 (the FT’s Chris Giles thinks the number could rise to 60,000). And once again, it seems that deaths in care homes in England has driven that awful number.

Nick Stripe, head of life events at the ONS, told the BBC that today’s figures were “the seventh highest weekly total since this data set started in 1993...we have had four out of the top seven weeks in the last four weeks”. ‘Excess deaths’, as they are known, normally spike due to winter flu but this is extraordinary data. The issues of early discharges of the elderly from hospitals into care homes, and a lack of testing, just won’t go away.

Total mortality across the UK during the pandemic is a staggering 50,979. One former cabinet minister put it to me thus: “Everyone says how popular the PM still is with the public, but remember the Iraq War was popular too at first. The difference is Blair had his Chilcot inquiry years after he left office. We’re going to get our Covid inquiry much sooner.”‌

There are some stats around for all-cause deaths for other European countries, and the UK does indeed look among the worst (we are more than 61% higher than usual, Spain is 60% higher).‌

And while some believe that the clearest picture will only emerge later in the year, we could get a much earlier assessment. Although Italy has so far only published its total registered deaths for March, it should have its April figures pretty soon. That comparison is unlikely to make it to a No.10 briefing chart. But it will be hard to ignore.

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Tuesday Cheat Sheet

Matt Hancock told ITV’s This Morning that it is “unlikely that big, lavish international holidays are going to be possible for this summer”.‌

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick unveiled new plans to restart the housing market with safer viewings.

Headteachers union NAHT warned that it may be ‘impossible’ for schools in England to start admitting more pupils from June 1, amid safety fears.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps published new guidance urging the public to travel by foot, cycle or car in order to avoid using public transport.

Manchester and Liverpool metro mayors Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram wrote to the PM to say it is “too early” to change the Stay Home lockdown slogan, and demanded regional publication of their own R-number for the virus.

Jacob Rees-Mogg said he was unlikely to renew standing orders allowing hybrid parliamentary proceedings, when they are due on May 20.

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