As the data rolls in from the Covid-19 pandemic it is a bit like watching the football scores, but only for the teams at the wrong end of the table.
The results for every country are poor: it’s simply that some appear to be doing worse than others. France saw bigger falls in output than Germany, Spain or Italy in the first three months of 2020: the US has seen the sharpest increase in unemployment.
In truth, it is too early to make international comparisons. The UK took a smaller hit to activity than France in the first three months of the year but it went into lockdown later. There may be nothing more to it than that.
Similarly, the jobless rate in the US is higher than in the UK for two reasons: the Americans get their unemployment figures out quicker and don’t have a furloughing scheme to soften the blow to the labour market.
Making assumptions now about which country has fared least badly from the pandemic is no different from making rash predictions about which team will be relegated three games into the season. If the history of the last recession is any guide, the US will bounce back faster than the UK or the eurozone.
Governments are sensitive to international economic comparisons, but they are even more prickly when it comes to mortality league tables. You don’t need to be a genius to understand why Boris Johnson has ceased to publish details of how well Britain is doing compared to the rest of the Europe. As Keir Starmer helpfully pointed out last week, you need to look no further than the fact that the UK has had more deaths than any other country.
Ministers and health officials say that comparing the headline figures for deaths is misleading, and in one sense they are right. France has a lower death toll than Britain but that might be expected given that it has roughly the same number of people living in a country that is twice as big. Population density is clearly a factor when it comes to the spread of Covid-19.
There is, though, a way to refine the data so that more meaningful international comparisons can be made. This is done by comparing a country’s excess deaths: the difference between the mortality rate this year with what happened in the past.
This is what two Oxford University economists, Janine Aron and John Muellbauer, have done in a new paper. It shows England’s peak in excess deaths was not just higher than that in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland but the highest of 24 European countries.
England also had the highest excess death rate for the over-65s and – perhaps even more worryingly – had far and away the worst record for excess deaths for those age between 15 and 64 as well. At its peak it was 2.8 times worse than the weekly peak in the next worst country, Spain, around four times worse than France and Belgium, and more than five times worse than in Italy.
These are sobering findings, particularly in the light of England coming out of lockdown faster than Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
As Aron and Muellbauer note, there are plenty of reasons why England’s excess death rate is so high. The first is the role of London as a major global hub, with a high population density and a transport system that makes social distancing difficult. London had the highest number of cases of Covid-19 in the early stages of the pandemic and it is not hard to see why.
A second factor is that it took time for the government to decide a lockdown was necessary. By that time, the virus had taken hold and was being transmitted in London. By the time it reached less densely populated parts of the UK the lockdown had been enforced.
Thirdly, the UK was in no fit state to deal with the crisis. The paper notes: “Generally, there was a collective failure in preparedness across the public health system, especially for testing capability and adequate supplies and distribution logistics of personal protection equipment for health workers.”
The findings for the 15-64 age group need to be looked at alongside the government’s own data, which shows much higher Covid-19 related death rates in areas of economic deprivation. Underlying health tends to be worse in the poorer parts of the country, and they contain more low-paid employees who work in face-to-face sectors: care workers, bus drivers, supermarket cashiers.
The Office for National Statistics has helpfully broken down deaths for England and Wales from Covid-19 by occupational group. Among men, security guards and care workers fare worst. Among women care workers have around 2.4 times the death rates of the average for working age women, suggesting they have been particularly let down by a lack of protective gear and by the failure to test, trace and isolate. The comparative ratio for nurses is 1.3 times the average for working age women.
Ministers don’t like to be reminded of it, but Germany has done far, far better than the UK, and England in particular. Its decentralised model for testing was streets ahead of Britain’s top-down centralised approach. It had more hospital beds, more intensive care units and more ventilators per head of population. It started testing more quickly, which facilitated effective tracing. Investment in PPE occurred earlier and Germany did better than other countries to keep the virus out of care homes.
One of the favourite sayings of football managers is that the table never lies. This one doesn’t either. The government’s handling of Covid-19 has been poor from the start and it is about time it was held to account for it.