Calls for UK national lockdown grow as coronavirus death toll passes 60,000

Aamna Mohdin and Pamela Duncan
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: NurPhoto/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: NurPhoto/Getty Images

The number of people killed by coronavirus in the UK passed 60,000 on Tuesday as the country hit a 200-a-day death toll weeks earlier than feared by the government’s chief scientific adviser.

The two alarming milestones bolstered calls for a national “circuit breaker” to halt an exponential rise in cases.

A further 367 new Covid deaths were confirmed on Tuesday – the largest number since May, and 265 higher than the previous day. While numbers often fluctuate during and after weekends, this brings the rolling seven-day average death toll to 200, with 61,469 deaths UK-wide, according to analysis of official data.

More than 9,000 people were in hospital with Covid, with Leeds teaching hospitals NHS trust the latest to cancel some non-urgent operations, saying it had more coronavirus patients than at the peak of the first wave.

Last month, Sir Patrick Vallance warned that the pandemic was growing exponentially and the UK was on course to have 50,000 cases a day by mid-October and 200 deaths a day by mid-November without a significant change in direction. His warning, which he insisted was not a prediction, was criticised by some scientists as “implausible”. Confirmed daily cases have not exceeded 27,000.

Since then, more than 8 million people have been placed under the strictest tier 3 measures, with millions more in tier 2.

Meanwhile, a Guardian analysis underlined how coronavirus had touched every corner of the UK, showing that every local authority bar two has registered at least one fatality.

The Isles of Scilly and the Outer Hebrides (Na h-Eileanan Siar) are the only council areas not to have registered a single Covid-19 death since the pandemic hit in spring, official figures show.

But the country has not been hit equally. Prof Neil Ferguson, the scientist whose modelling led to the original UK lockdown in spring, said the latest figures revealed a three-fold difference in mortality between the 10% of local authority areas that were worst affected and the 10% least affected. Some 92% of tier 3 areas are in northern England.

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Ferguson said: “The reasons for these differences are complex. First, bad luck played a role – the epidemic was seeded to different extents in different areas back in February and March. This meant that local epidemics had reached widely different levels when lockdown was introduced.” Demography and deprivation were also key factors, he added.

The latest figures cement the UK’s position as the worst-hit nation in Europe for fatalities, worse than countries such as Italy, France and Spain, according to Johns Hopkins University.

At a sobering press conference on 21 September, Vallance presented a slide showing the potential progression of the virus. Fifty thousand cases per day would be expected to lead a month later, so the middle of November say, to 200 plus deaths per day,” he said. “So this graph, which is not a prediction, is simply showing you how quickly this can move if the doubling time stays at seven days.”

Critics said the new death tolls suggested that “ad hoc” government attempts to contain the spread of the virus were not working, and a circuit breaker – as advocated by the government’s scientific advisers – was necessary.

Dr Zubaida Haque, the former director of the Runnymede Trust and a member of the Independent Sage group set up to hold the government to account, said: “There’s no question that the government are wholeheartedly failing to not only manage the spread of this virus, but to suppress it. And that’s two distinctive things.

“They are not managing to contain the virus because they are not taking a cross-national circuit breaker approach as Sage suggested in September and Independent Sage also suggested.”

Haque added: “Every scientific advisory group has said to the government you need to have a circuit breaker because their ad hoc tier-by-tier approach is wholeheartedly inadequate. Covid cases are increasing everywhere across the country, not just in the north-west [of England] but also in the south-west. What is appalling there has been no sign of a plan to suppress this virus.”

According to the Guardian analysis of deaths, Hertsmere in Hertfordshire – bordering the three north London boroughs of Barnet, Harrow and Enfield – has recorded the worst cumulative Covid-19 fatality rate during the pandemic, with 178.2 deaths per 100,000.

The figures were not age-standardised to take into account greater risks to the elderly, however. When this is taken into account, analysis shows Hertsmere having the 15th highest Covid-19 death rate in England. A council spokesperson said a significant outbreak in the summer was brought under control.

Based on the crude death rates, Hertsmere is followed by Tameside in Manchester and Harrow in London, with 167.8 and 162.4 per 100,000 respectively. Inverclyde in Renfrewshire, with 155.5 deaths per 100,000, and the London borough of Brent, at 150.7, were also in the worst-affected five local authorities since the first known UK death of the pandemic on 30 January.

On Tuesday the total number of deaths registered by the three statistical agencies across England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland stood at 59,927. But more up-to-date government figures show 1,542 deaths within 28 days of a positive test since the figures were registered in each nation: 1,359 in England, 69 in Wales and 57 each in Scotland and Northern Ireland. This brings to 61,469 the number of deaths across the four nations of the UK.

Two of the areas with the highest Covid-19 death rate, Brent and Harrow, are majority ethnic areas. In June, a report by Public Health England on Covid-19 deaths confirmed that the risk of dying among those diagnosed with Covid-19 was higher in those in BAME groups than in white ethnic groups.

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