More than 100,000 people have died from coronavirus in the UK since the disease first appeared in the country almost a year ago, in what public health experts said is a sign of “phenomenal failure of policy and practice”.
On Wednesday the daily figure for recorded deaths was 1,564 – a new record high bringing the total to 101,160, according to analysis of figures from government and statistical agencies. The toll far exceeds some of the worst-case scenario estimates made during the first wave of the pandemic.
It comes amid warnings that the toughest weeks of the crisis are yet to come and that Britons are facing an epidemic of grief for lost relatives and loved-ones, with many forced to mourn alone amid lockdown measures and curbs on funerals.
Almost one in every 660 people in the UK have died from Covid or Covid-related causes so far during the pandemic – or about one-in-six of all deaths. The UK has one of the worst coronavirus mortality rates in the world, at 151 per 100,000 people.
Even by the lower government figure – which only measures deaths within 28 days of a positive Covid test – the UK is now ahead of the US, Spain and Mexico, where there have been 116, 113 and 108 deaths per 100,000 people respectively.
The figures are also in stark contrast to counties that have maintained low case and death rates, including Taiwan, New Zealand and Australia where death rates per 100,000 people stand at 0.3, 0.5 and 3.6.
Gabriel Scally, a visiting professor of public health at the University of Bristol and a member of the Independent Sage group of experts, said the 100,000-plus death toll was an indictment of the way the pandemic had been handled.
“It is an astounding number of preventable deaths from one cause in one year, [an] absolutely astounding number. It’s a sign of a phenomenal failure of policy and practice in the face of this new and dangerous virus,” Scally said.
The government has been repeatedly accused of acting too late to reduce the spread of the virus. In March Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, said keeping deaths from coronavirus below 20,000 would be a “good outcome”.
There have been 93,418 coronavirus deaths recorded by statistical agencies, based on those with Covid on the death certificate, from the beginning of the pandemic up to 10 January, and a further 7,742 deaths since, according to figures published by the government based on deaths within 28 days of a positive test for the virus.
The way coronavirus deaths in the UK are counted has changed since the beginning of the pandemic. While statistical agencies count deaths where Covid-19 is noted on the death certificate, the government figures released each day count fatalities within 28 days of a positive test. The Guardian analyses the data from both sources to achieve the most up-to-date fatality count possible.
Prof Andrew Hayward, a member of the government’s Sage advisory group and director of University College London’s Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, said: “The UK ranks seventh in the world in terms of numbers of deaths per million population through the pandemic. During the last week, our death rate was the second highest in the world – a record that is ‘world-beating’ in all the wrong ways.
“Our intensive care units, which have always had much lower capacity than many other European countries, are at breaking point. Our frontline NHS staff are exhausted and traumatised. Hospitalisations and deaths will continue to increase across the country for at least the next two or three weeks and possibly beyond.”
Christina Pagel, a professor of operational research at University College London and also a member of Independent Sage, said that with deaths lagging infections by three to four weeks, the death toll would rise further.
“I could say it’s shocking that [the] UK has [the] worst death toll in Europe, or we could have prevented this with earlier measures in September or October, and it would be true,” she said. But this had been true for weeks, she added, and scientists had repeatedly stressed the gravity of rising infections. “Scientists were saying it all December, warning that deaths would go up after Christmas.”
The number of deaths announced by the government has increased by 55% in the last week, after the emergence of new variants, and relaxed rules over the Christmas period are thought to have driven up cases, hospitalisations and deaths.
Cases are now in decline, however, with a further 47,525 positive cases across the UK reported on Wednesday. But the numbers of people in hospital have continued to increase, with 4,253 more people admitted, an increase of 35% over the last seven days.
The figures come as concerns have been raised about the level of restrictions in place in England, which are not as strict as in March. Prof Kamlesh Khunti, of the University of Leicester, who sits on Sage and is also a member of the Independent Sage group of experts, said stricter rules could be part of the solution.
Khunti said: “This is indeed a dismal milestone in the pandemic for the UK. We need to urgently get the rates down as the number of infections and deaths seem still very high and we may need a stricter lockdown for longer. We are seeing younger people being admitted to hospital and we therefore need to have great urgency in prioritising a vaccination programme once we have completed the 14 million [most vulnerable people] as planned by the government by mid-February.”
Official statistics released on Tuesday showed 2020 was the deadliest year in England and Wales for more than a century. More than 608,000 people died last year, 81,653 of whom as a result of coronavirus.
Deaths exceeded 600,000 for only the second time on record, and the toll was just behind that of 611,861 in 1918, the worst year of the flu pandemic.
Scally said the final death toll from Covid was likely to be far higher. “It could add another 50,000 [deaths] before we are finished,” he said.