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Today, the Financial Times has returned to one of its favourite pursuits of late: trying to show that the UK has the worst Coronavirus death rate in the world.

“UK suffers highest death rate from coronavirus”, ran the headline on its analysis of excess mortality figures. “The UK has registered 59,537 more deaths than usual since the week ending March 20”, the paper reads, adding that this is a “higher rate of death than in any country for which high-quality data exist.”

The figure is, of course, a terrible one. But the headline is also misleading, as there are a number of ways the death rate can be calculated. Unfortunately these do not always fit the media narrative that Britain is the worst place in the whole universe. Take the case-fatality ratio, which is highest for Belgium and France. For deaths per 100,000 and per million, it is Belgium and Spain. But when do these ever get mentioned in our news cycle?

As ConservativeHome has argued before, making international comparisons is generally a futile exercise as countries are so different, and these differences will affect how Covid-19 impacts on them. The UK is one of the most highly populated in Europe; an international hub with a housing crisis, so it is almost certainly at a disadvantage against a disease that spreads rapidly. Deaths per capita is a better measure, as this allows for analysts to “normalise” differences in population size.

Moreover, one problem with international comparisons is they fail to highlight the unique solutions which each country has to adopt to fight the Coronavirus. If we treat countries like they’re all the same, branding them as “good” or “bad” in simplistic articles, we don’t really get a sense of what can help them in the future.

In regards to the UK, some have argued that the Government made a huge mistake by clearing out hospitals quickly – in doing so sending infected members of the elderly population back to their care homes, where the disease transmitted and killed others. It’s understanding this information that’s important in analyses, so the UK can change any of its strategies – not creating league tables of which country is winning and losing.

And this brings us back to the FT – which is dogmatic about where it thinks the Government has gone wrong. It claims that  “Countries such as Germany and Norway, which imposed restrictions when the spread of the virus was limited, suffered much lower levels of additional deaths than those in the UK where the government waited longer before ordering a lockdown.”

Throughout Covid-19, the media has had extreme confidence that lockdown is the best route – even (arguably) accelerating it with calls at daily briefings. 

None of this is to suggest they are wrong – perhaps lockdown should have been sooner – but it is simply too early to make such proclamations, particularly as there’s still so much to discover about the virus. It appears, for one, to have its own natural peak, regardless of intervention, and changes to the weather could even play a part. Additionally, excess mortality can be caused by lockdown in itself, with missed hospital appointments, suicides and other tragedies contributing to the toll. That’s before we get to the economic upheaval lockdown will inflict on our future prosperity, which will cost lives too.

That’s why the media should be slow to boast that it knows better than the Government and its advisers. It’s likely that Covid-19 will be with us for a long time; no one can be sure how many waves and lockdowns there will be, if countries will ever find a vaccine, or if the disease will just be stuck with us, like flu, for the foreseeable future. Our situation can change, and so with it can the prevailing orthodoxies of the time – around how the UK should have tackled Covid-19.

The Government has said repeatedly that all-cause mortality, adjusted for age, will be the most important metric when we (hopefully) get a grip on the virus and can assess death rates. But even this will have its own limitations; no two countries are the same, and one would actually need two UKs to make direct comparisons on what worked and didn’t. Frankly, it’s never really been obvious to me what is so constructive about knowing who did “best” in a pandemic; it’s interesting that when Italy was in pain, the UK offered it solidarity, not an avalanche of criticisms about its Government.

Indeed, much of the coverage comes across as ideological, as a revenge for Brexit, in which the UK was also talked down in the same way. Yes the Government will have no doubt have not got its approach right at various points. But nothing justifies the onslaught of statistically selective narratives circulating the news. 

52 comments for: The tragedy of Coronavirus death rates. And the problem of statistically selective narratives.

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