Coronavirus: How does the UK compare with other European countries?

The spread of the corona virus in the UK has increased in recent days.

The number of cases reported was 500 on March 12, 1,000 on March 14, 2,000 on March 18 and 5,000 on March 21.

How is Britain currently comparing itself to some of its closest European neighbors?

– Number of cases and deaths

By March 22, 5,683 cases of coronavirus had been registered in the UK. A simple comparison with other countries shows that this is currently the sixth highest figure in Europe after Italy (59,138), Spain (28,572), Germany (24,873), France (16,018) and Switzerland (7,245).

HEALTH Coronavirus Europe
(PA Graphica)

Britain has the fourth highest number of coronavirus-related deaths in Europe. The number was 281 on March 22, behind Italy (5,476), Spain (1,720) and France (674).

These numbers can be related by examining how they have changed over time and how they are compared.

However, this type of calculation involves risks, on the one hand when considering the mortality rates.

– mortality rates

Dividing the number of reported coronavirus cases by the number of coronavirus-related deaths gives an approximate mortality rate for each country – however, these numbers should be treated with caution.

This is because different countries test different groups of people and on different scales. In the UK, people with the virus who isolate themselves at home are not tested, while the people tested are mainly people with underlying health symptoms or who are already in hospital. Other countries – like Germany – are testing a larger population volume, which has an impact on overall mortality.

A man walks in the empty Porta Palazzo open market in Turin, Italy
A man walks in the empty Porta Palazzo market in Turin (Marco Alpozzi / LaPresse via AP)

According to the latest figures, the mortality rate is around 5% in Great Britain, 9% in Italy and 0.4% in Germany. However, this type of variation can be expected at such an early stage of the outbreak, especially if only a limited amount of data is available and countries have different testing guidelines.

Here in the UK, the mildest cases of the virus are not included in the number of cases reported. Testing more patients would increase the "denominator" – the number of people who have a positive coronavirus test. According to Duncan Young, professor of intensive care medicine at Oxford University, this should lower the mortality rate for a certain number of deaths.

He suggests that an alternative approach could be to compare mortality rates for cases of equal severity – for example, patients in Italy and the United Kingdom who have the same disease level when admitted to a hospital or intensive care unit. According to Prof. Young, if these figures were available, they could “provide a very rough estimate of the quality / overload of the care system. However, any difference could also be due to differences in patient characteristics (age, smoking status) between Great Britain and Italy. "

– Development of the outbreak

Another way to measure Britain against Europe is to look at the evolution of the outbreak and see if the country reflects another country's trend – possibly by a certain number of days or weeks.

HEALTH Coronavirus Europe
(PA graphic)

On March 7, 5,883 cases were reported in Italy – similar to March 22 in the UK (5,683).

The number of coronavirus-related deaths in Italy on March 7 was 233 – again similar to that in the United Kingdom on March 22 (281).

The numbers suggest that the UK was about two weeks behind Italy and could therefore reach the corresponding number of cases and deaths in two weeks.

Although the evolution of the outbreak in the UK is broadly the same as in Italy, based on confirmed cases, it is impossible to predict whether the trajectory will be identical. The total could mask important differences in the age of coronavirus cases and victims, as well as differences in testing procedures, all of which could affect the pace and extent of the UK outbreak's development over the next few weeks.

– Age of the victims

Professor Sheila Bird, former program director of the Department of Biostatistics at the Medical Research Council at Cambridge University, suggests a different approach: aligning countries based on the outbreak evolution and then comparing the population deaths per million for each age group .

"The sharp rise in relative mortality rates by age group that we've seen in other countries is why Britain is trying to protect people over 70 from exposure to Covid-19," she says.

View of the Toledo Bridge in Madrid during the general closure due to the Covid 19 emergency in Spain
View of the Toledo Bridge in Madrid during the general closure due to the Covid 19 emergency in Spain (Bernat Armangue / AP)

Based on 1,625 deaths in Italy and taking into account the age distribution of the Italian population, Prof. Bird found that the mortality rate per million inhabitants “at 50-59 years seems to be four times higher than at 40-49 years; 19 times higher at 60-69 years; 105 times higher per million inhabitants aged 70-79 years than aged 40-49 years; and at over 80 years old, about 210 times higher per million inhabitants than at 40-49 years old. "

She notes that Britain will “unfortunately only be able to estimate these rates for its own population in just a few weeks,” which will then help to get a more detailed picture of how Britain is compared to some of its European neighbors .

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