Across the globe, only the United States has reported more Covid-19 deaths than the United Kingdom.
(CN) — The United Kingdom overtook Italy on Tuesday as the European country with the most deaths from the coronavirus pandemic following the release of new data.
The Office of National Statistics said more than 32,000 people in the U.K. have died from the respiratory disease caused by the virus, a toll one British newspaper morbidly compared to the number of people killed during Germany’s bombing campaign of the U.K. during World War II, known as the Blitz.
The new official death count is fueling criticism of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic. Johnson, a controversial Conservative leader who led the U.K. into exiting the European Union, was hesitant to impose a lockdown and government scientists initially talked about the benefits of allowing a large number of people to get infected and build up so-called herd immunity.
After Brits were placed under lockdown on March 23, nearly two weeks after Italy had done so, the government struggled to ramp up testing for the virus, a critical tool in figuring out who is infected. At the same time, Johnson and several other top government officials became sick with the virus, throwing more doubt onto the Tory government’s handling of the crisis.
“This is a monumental catastrophe. Almost all countries have been affected by the deadly virus. But this government’s mismanagement of it has led us to disaster,” said Diane Abbott, a Labour Party leader and shadow home secretary, on Twitter. “The government needs to face up to its own responsibilities, for the worst death toll in the whole of Europe.”
On Tuesday, the U.K. recorded yet another grim day with 693 new deaths and 4,406 new confirmed cases, far exceeding Europe’s other hard-hit nations of Spain, France and Italy where daily death tolls and new infections have declined considerably.
Across Europe, including in the U.K., lockdown measures are slowly stopping the spread of the virus and there are clear signs that the worst is over in most countries, at least for now. There are concerns though that the virus may flourish as lockdowns are lifted. On Monday, some restrictions were lifted on Italians. The U.K., meanwhile, remains under a strict lockdown.
The new data from the Office of National Statistics showed that the U.K.’s toll reached 32,313 by April 24, suggesting that more than 40,000 people have died in the outbreak to date. The Daily Mail newspaper ran this headline: “Worse than the Blitz.”
The new data counted every death certificate that listed coronavirus as a cause of death. Previously, the government had reported 22,524 deaths on April 24.
By comparison, Italy’s death toll stands at 29,315 after it added 236 more fatalities on Tuesday. Only the United States has reported a higher toll with more than 69,000 fatalities from Covid-19, as the disease caused by the virus is known.
British officials warned against making comparison with other countries because of differences in tallying deaths.
“International comparisons are incredibly difficult to do and will be for some time to come,” said Nick Stripe, the head of health analysis at the Office of National Statistics. He said the U.K. has “the fastest, most frequent and most in depth” process for producing statistics.
At a daily news briefing, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab stood in for the prime minister, as he has routinely done since Johnson fell sick with Covid-19, and said comparisons between countries cannot be made at this stage.
“I don’t think we’ll get a real verdict until the pandemic is over,” Raab said.
He said each country counts deaths differently and he questioned how good other countries are at gathering statistics.
“I don’t think you can make international comparisons at this stage reliably,” Raab said.
Still, he called the pandemic a “major tragedy” that was unlike anything he had experienced in his life.
All figures related to deaths are considered partial because people dying at homes and nursing facilities who were not tested for Covid-19 have not been included in many national figures.
On Monday, for example, Italy’s statistics agency said the country’s death toll was likely much higher than officially reported, perhaps by as much as 11,600. It based its analysis on a 39% nationwide increase in deaths over the period of the outbreak compared with previous years.
Experts are expected to revise death counts across Europe. Also, there is growing evidence that people may have been dying from Covid-19 before doctors and specialists became aware the virus was circulating widely in Europe.
Italian researchers are looking at exhuming people who died between October and December to see if they may have contracted the virus. Italian experts are investigating whether an unusual spike in pneumonia and flu cases in Lombardy in the last quarter of 2019 was actually related to the virus. Some cases resulted in deaths, experts say.
On Sunday, the International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents published a study from doctors at a Paris hospital who reported finding evidence that a patient with no link to China was admitted in late December with Covid-19. If verified, that means the virus may have been in Europe weeks before the first cases of coronavirus were diagnosed in late January. Doctors in the United States also are investigating whether the virus was circulating before the first cases were reported.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.