A sign indicates safety measures at a testing centre near the Crown and Anchor pub following a spike in cases of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) to visitors of the pub in Stone, Britain, July 30, 2020. REUTERS/Carl Recine

The United Kingdom suffered the highest rate of excess deaths during the Covid-19 pandemic in a comparison of 21 European countries, according to data showed on Thursday by the countr’s statistics authority.

Epidemiologists say excess mortality – deaths from all causes that exceed the five-year average for the time of year – is the best way of gauging deaths from a disease outbreak because it is internationally comparable.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) analysis confirmed the UK’s place as one of the countries worst hit by a pandemic that has killed more than 666,000 people worldwide.

Around 65,000 more people than usual have died from all causes across the United Kingdom so far this year, the highest total in Europe.

Thursday’s figures showed the UK also had Europe’s highest excess death rate when adjusted for the size and age of its population.

The ONS said the excess deaths were spread throughout the UK, in contrast to many European countries where they were concentrated in particular regions.

Even so, England had a noticeably higher death rate than Scotland, which in turn had higher death rates than Wales and Northern Ireland.

Dr Veena Raleigh, senior fellow at The King’s Fund, said: “This comprehensive ONS analysis shows that excess mortality to date resulting from the coronavirus pandemic has been highest in England compared to other European countries.

“Whilst some other European nations experienced sharper peaks in excess deaths, the rates in the UK have taken longer to come down. Moreover, we know that the pandemic has had an unequal impact, taking the greatest toll of lives among older people, more deprived populations and ethnic minority communities – thereby exposing yet again the wide and widening health divide in our population.

“Over the past decade, life expectancy improvements in the UK have lagged behind our European peers. With the worst coronavirus death toll in Europe, there is a very real risk that the UK will 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.”

Spain recorded a higher peak of excess deaths but the slower decline of deaths in the UK following its own coronavirus peak made for a worse picture overall, the report – based on age-standardised data – showed.

“This meant that by the end of May, England had seen the highest overall relative excess mortality out of all the European countries compared,” ONS statistician Edward Morgan said.

The large death toll has prompted criticism of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic, with opposition parties and some scientists saying Britain was too slow to impose a lockdown or protect the elderly in care homes.

Johnson has said his government followed the science but that there would be lessons to learn. (With input from Reuters)

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