Is Boris Johnson right that UK had fewer Covid deaths than much of Europe? | Covid inquiry

Boris Johnson has questioned the assertion by the lead counsel in Britain’s Covid inquiry that Britain was among the worst performers in western Europe in terms of the number of excess deaths recorded during the pandemic.

The former prime minister told Hugo Keith KC on Wednesday that the UK was “well down the European table, and well down the world table”.

Keith responded that in “western Europe, we were one of the worst off, if not the second worst off”.

Both claims could be argued to be at least partly correct.

Throughout most of the 2020-22 pandemic, the measure many media organisation used to report and compare Covid fatalities across Europe was defined as “confirmed Covid-19 deaths recorded per million people”.

Using this measure, between 5 January 2020 and 22 April 2022, when the EU declared the emergency phase of the pandemic over, Britain recorded 2,905.6 deaths per million people, according to WHO figures visualised by Our World in Data.

That was lower than most central and eastern EU member states, from Bulgaria (5,423.5), Hungary (4,619.9) and Croatia (3,913.3), which fared worst, to Poland (2,909), Lithuania (3,293.4) and Romania (3,327.3), which did better. It was also lower than the US, which recorded 2,916.3 deaths per million.

However, confirmed Covid-19 deaths per million in the UK were higher than the EU average of 2,401.4, and higher than every western and southern European member state, including Greece (2,762,2) and Italy (2,751.9).

France recorded 2,245.5 confirmed Covid deaths per million, Spain 2,211.5, Portugal 2,151.4, Sweden 1,781.3, Germany 1,678.3, Ireland 1,451.5, the Netherlands 1,264.5 and Denmark and Finland, the best performers, 1,030.2 and 824.6 respectively.

Many experts have since said that owing to the multiple different ways that countries defined and recorded deaths “due to Covid”, as well as challenges in correctly attributing the cause of death, fatalities per million may not be the most useful yardstick.

Instead, attention has turned to excess mortality: in essence, the number of deaths for any reason that were recorded during the pandemic, compared with the number of deaths that would normally have been expected to occur based on previous years.

By this measure, cited at the inquiry by Johnson and Keith, Britain again fared better than most central and eastern European EU member states, but also outperformed Italy, Spain and Greece. It also had a lower increase in excess deaths than the US.

According to data from Our World in Data, the cumulative number of deaths from all causes recorded in the UK over that same January 2020-April 2022 period was 9.2% higher than the projected total based on past averages.

That compared with 26.5% in Bulgaria, 21.2% in Slovakia, 17.2% in Poland, 12.3% in Italy, 12.2% in Hungary, 10.6% in Greece, 10% in Spain and 15.9% in the US. But against most wealthier, western European countries, with good healthcare systems, Britain did relatively poorly.

Belgium (8.3%), Austria (8.2%), the Netherlands (8.1%), Portugal (7.6%), Ireland (6.2%), France (6.1%), Sweden (4.9%), Germany (4.1%), Finland (3.9% and Denmark (1.3%) all recorded lower percentage increases in excess deaths than the UK.


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