Britain becomes first in Europe to surpass 100,000 Covid-19 deaths

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson closes his eyes as he leads a virtual press conference on the Covid-19 pandemic, from inside 10 Downing Street on January 26, 2021.
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson closes his eyes as he leads a virtual press conference on the Covid-19 pandemic, from inside 10 Downing Street on January 26, 2021. AP - Justin Tallis

Britain on Tuesday became the first European country to pass 100,000 Covid-19 deaths, in a grim milestone nearly one year since its first case of the disease. But the number of confirmed new infections is declining steadily amid a third lockdown and the world's third-highest vaccination rate.


Britain is the fifth country in the world to record 100,000 virus-related deaths, after the United States, Brazil, India and Mexico, and by far the smallest. The US has recorded more than 400,000 Covid-19 deaths, the world’s highest total, but its population of about 330 million is about five times more than that of the UK.

The Department of Health said 100,162 people have died after testing positive, including 1,631 new deaths reported Tuesday.

 “It’s hard to compute the sorrow contained in that grim statistic,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson told a televised news conference.

The UK toll is more than twice as many people as were killed by Nazi bombs during the 1940-41 Blitz, and 30,000 more than the total number of British civilians killed during the entire Second World War.

The first confirmed British victim of the virus was Peter Attwood, an 84-year-old pensioner who died on January 30, 2020 – though the cause was not recorded as Covid-19 until months later.

A year on, hundreds of thousands of Brits are grieving the loss of loved ones, and demanding an accounting for the terrible toll.

In part, the UK has suffered because of longstanding factors such as high levels of conditions including obesity and heart disease and London’s status as a global crossroads with especially high connectedness.

Impact of new strain

The emergence of the more infectious UK variant of Covid-19 in the southeast of England in the autumn is another factor behind the country’s high death toll.

The new coronavirus strain tripled its number of infections in England during the second lockdown in November, while the number of new cases caused by the previous variant decreased by a third, estimated a report by scientists at Imperial College London released on December 31.

>> New strain of Covid-19 tripled infections despite UK lockdown, report says

The new strain registered a higher reproduction (R) rate – which determines how contagious a disease is based on the number of people infected by each infected person – of 0.7 versus 0.4 for the previous strain, even with the “high levels of social distancing” during the pre-Christmas lockdown.

An R rate must be less than 1 for the number of new cases to start falling.

The new strain prompted a third lockdown imposed in Scotland on January 4 and in England on January 6.

Johnson vows public inquiry

But epidemiologists say the government’s decisions during the pandemic also played a part in the UK’s high death toll.

At the outset of the pandemic, as cases rose exponentially in mid-March, the British government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance detailed a strategy based on the assumption that most people will get the coronavirus: “Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely.”

“Also, because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission, at the same time we protect those who are most vulnerable to it,” Vallance told the BBC on March 13.

At the time, senior figures within Johnson’s Conservative party were urging him to bring in restrictions to contain the epidemic.

“It is surprising and concerning that we’re not doing any [social distancing] at all when we have just four weeks before we get to the stage that Italy is at,” Jeremy Hunt, chairman of the House of Commons’ Health Select Committee (which scrutinises government policy) and a well-regarded former health secretary, also told the BBC on March 13. “You would have thought that every single thing we do in that four weeks would be designed to slow the spread of people catching the virus.”

Johnson eventually put in place the first lockdown on March 23. "Had we introduced lockdown measures a week earlier, we would have reduced the final death toll by at least a half,” Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist and professor of mathematical biology at Imperial College London, told a committee of MPs in June.

The prime minister – who spent a week in hospital with the virus in April – has promised that a public inquiry will examine Britain’s handling of the pandemic, though he has not said when it will start.

High vaccination rate

But despite suffering a high death toll, the UK has so far been a success when it comes to vaccinations. Britain boasts the world’s third highest number of Covid-19 doses administered per capita, behind Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

It had given out a vaccine dose to 10.79 percent of its population by January 25, compared to just 2.29 percent in Germany and 1.67 percent in France, according to Oxford University’s Our World in Data tracker.

The UK became the first country to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech jab on December 2, and the first country to approve the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine on December 30. Britain approved the Moderna jab on January 8.

By contrast, the EU did not approve its first vaccine, the Pfizer-BioNTech jab, until December 21.

The UK’s number of confirmed new cases peaked at 68,053 on January 8 and has since fallen steadily, declining to 20,088 on January 26.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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