Excess Deaths

Daniel Trilling

The Financial Times reported today that the UK has the worst death rate from Covid-19 ‘among countries that produce comparable data’ (new data from Spain now put it ahead of the UK). The delay to introducing lockdown measures was made worse by shortages of PPE, a chaotic testing policy and a failure to protect care homes. The standard the government wanted to be measured by was ‘excess deaths’ – a public health term meaning the number of deaths above the expected level in any given period – and by this measure its policies have fallen short. ‘The UK has registered 59,537 more deaths than usual since the week ending 20 March,’ the FT says.

The evidence points to a catastrophic mistake. But something worries me about the apparent neutrality of the term ‘excess deaths’. British political culture is very good at making avoidable deaths seem like an unfortunate fact of life, or a matter of personal responsibility.

The public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire of June 2017, in which 72 people died, is now on hold because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Last November, Jacob Rees-Mogg said that residents should have used their ‘common sense’ and ignored the fire brigade’s advice to stay put as the building burned.

Ninety-six people were killed in the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, their reputations smeared by a government-friendly tabloid, and the event is still playing out across public life thirty years later, not fully resolved.

At least 19,000 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe in the last six years. In October 2014 the Foreign Office said it didn’t want to contribute to a European search and rescue effort because it would be a ‘pull factor’, encouraging people to make the crossing.

An IPPR report last year found that cuts to England’s public health budget played a role in 130,000 preventable deaths between 2012 and 2017.

Between 1899 and 1902, some 48,000 people died in concentration camps established by the British in South Africa. ‘The South African concentration camps had exactly the same mortality rate as existed in Glasgow at the time,’ Rees-Mogg said on Question Time in February 2019 (he was wrong by a factor of ten). ‘They’re not a good thing but where else were people going to live?’

One of the most prominent media personalities currently – and correctly – criticising government spin on the Dominic Cummings affair is a former spin doctor who helped manipulate public opinion to build consent for the invasion of Iraq. A Lancet survey estimated there were 654,965 excess deaths in Iraq between March 2003 and June 2006.

During the VE Day celebrations on 8 May there was no mention of the three million people who died in the preventable Bengal famine of 1943.

Of the 50 to 100 million people who died from the 1918 Spanish flu, 12 to 13 million were in India, under British rule.

The current situation seems intolerable. But it may eventually have its rough edges smoothed away by the government and its allies in the media; criticism will be diverted into a culture war, and demands for accountability treated as politically motivated or unpatriotic. At some point the government may announce a lengthy official inquiry. If we’re angry at what it’s done, perhaps we shouldn’t wait to say so.


  • 28 May 2020 at 7:09pm
    Graucho says:
    Some things about this pandemic are now becoming clear.

    1) The only countries that have got a handle on this virus were the ones that acted quickly. We didn't.
    2) The NHS were woefully unprepared in terms of kit, testing and personel. There was a contingency plan for dealing with a pandemic which was shelved in the name of austerity. There is no more expensive sight to behold than the Brits trying to save money.
    3) The lockdown came in the nick of time. Ambulances queueing 9 hours outside Moscow hospitals to deliver patients. Mass graves being dug in Brazil. Cardboard coffins piling up in the streets of Ecuador. Traffic jams of hearses in Mexico city. Spanish and Italian doctors having to decide who was going to treated and who was going to be left to die. Refrigerated lorries parked outside New York morgues to deal with the overflow. This at least we have been spared. We should pay close attention to what is happening in Latin America. With no social safety net, the numerous poor have to choose between the virus and starvation. They have lockdowns in name only. The only thing our nodellers really got wrong was to underestimate how disciplined the British would be in observing the restrictions. Fortunately we are not in the main a nation of self regarding political advisers.
    4) In this pandemic having a populist leader is bad news. The Trumps, Bosonaros and Johnsons of this world are ever far too busy admiring themselves in the mirror to keep their eyes peeled on the near horizon for looming icebergs.

    • 28 May 2020 at 8:46pm
      Graucho says: @ Graucho

  • 28 May 2020 at 7:27pm
    XopherO says:
    The government is still trying to cover up the massacre in 'care homes'. They restrict the name to exclude all other socio-medical, retirement and homes for folk who cannot live outside in the community,and deaths clearly which can be attributed to the virus but untested. The defence of Cummings is indefensible, obviously, but I suspect the trip north was planned a long time before lockdown, agreed by Boris - a break, a holiday, with family over Easter and a birthday - which they were determined to have, regardless, and I cannot believe anything that Cummings has said. I do not even believe they were ill - I suspect that's a cover-up (at least, without independent corroboration.) The blog hits the nail squarely. For official enquiry, read 'cover-up'. We will never know the truth. Mendacity is the hallmark of this government. Yes, OK, but this time it's fatal for many at home. Usually, as Trilling describes, it's nameless thousands overseas.

  • 29 May 2020 at 11:55am
    Robin Durie says:
    " If we’re angry at what it’s done, perhaps we shouldn’t wait to say so."

    Richard Horton, Editor of The Lancet, has been very angry - in particular, he has been angry about some of the poor science that has been practised in the early stages of the pandemic; but more recently, he has been very angry about the complicitness of the scientists on the SAGE Committees with the decisions that the Government has been making - decisions that have had less & less to do with scientific advice, & more & more to do with political ideology. The problem is that these decisions are are often in more or less direct contravention of the scientific advice, even undermining the potential health effects that following the scientific advice might secure.

    But these scientific experts are going along with these politically motivated decisions, even though they are in contravention of the scientific advice.

    Whitty & Vallance both claimed that they did not want to get sucked into politics, during the briefing last night (28th May). And yet, by their silence, they are precisely endorsing the politics which is undermining the science.

    Horton is right to be very angry.

  • 29 May 2020 at 8:15pm
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    To cite alleged incompetence, ignorance or wilful malice during this crisis as the continuation of a historic English propensity for cruelty and callousness is, at best, tendentious.
    Frankly, it’s a load of balls.

    • 29 May 2020 at 8:51pm
      Martin Pearce says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      Well now, that was an exquisitely constructed little argument, wasn’t it?

    • 29 May 2020 at 10:07pm
      Graucho says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      Nothing alleged about it. It was incompetent.

    • 31 May 2020 at 8:05am
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ Graucho
      Well I’m sure you’ve done all the necessary investigative due diligence to support that conclusion but, even if it is actual rather than alleged, my contention is that that does not justify linking the concept of excess deaths to a wholly imaginary culture of English disregard for human life.

    • 31 May 2020 at 1:19pm
      Graucho says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      The article actually refers to "British political culture" as opposed to English disregard for human life. This seems to me to be a corollary of the more general propostion that politicians use bland terms to neutralise and downplay inconvenient truths.

    • 7 June 2020 at 4:43pm
      Robert says: @ Graucho
      How can we account for the very high death rate in Britain? Let's explore a few possible explanations. 1.Has the virus mutated here in the UK, and hence has it become more lethal? 2. Are the British more susceptible than other people?3. Are the British less receptive to sound Government advice? 4. Did the Government fail to act quickly and effectively?
      On the subject of competence at least, I'm finding it easier to choose an answer than Marmaduke has.

  • 3 June 2020 at 5:11pm
    John Brennan says:
    But will witnesses in any official inquiry give evidence on oath? Look at Hutton, Butler and Chilcot.

Read more