Alarm as UK death toll hits highest in Europe

Sick man of Europe: The true number of fatalities is likely to already be 40,000 – worse than the Blitz.

Should we trust the government less? A lockdown scientist has quit after breaking the rules with his married lover. The chief scientific officer admits mistakes. The health secretary snaps.

Britain’s death toll climbed to the highest in Europe last night in one of the darkest days of the coronavirus pandemic. Two official measures showed that UK figures had surpassed Italy’s – previously the worst-affected nation on the continent.

The first was government data showing there had been 29,427 deaths in hospitals, care homes and the community – a rise of 693 in one day.

But a second set of figures from the Office for National Statistics put the death toll at 32,375 – once numbers from Scotland and Northern Ireland had been included.

The UK’s death toll is now second in the world to the USA, which has, so far, reported 71,228, and has a population five times the size.

Ministers are now facing accusations that they failed to act quickly enough in enforcing the lockdown; testing; providing protective equipment for NHS staff, and preventing outbreaks in care homes.

The four-day Cheltenham Festival was allowed go ahead from 16 March, drawing crowds of thousands to the racecourse. And images are still emerging online of Britons being brought home on packed planes.

Pity the team at 10 Downing Street as they pore over the morning headlines today. “Lockdown professor steps down after breaking rules to meet married lover,” says the usually-supportive Telegraph, in inch-high letters emblazoned across the front page.

Under the Telegraph’s headline are two enormous images – like a wanted poster – of charity campaigner Antonia Staats and her lover Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, London, the scientist credited with the modelling that hardened the UK government’s coronavirus position.

Elsewhere, there are numerous accounts of Chief Scientific Officer Patrick Vallance reluctantly admitting to a parliamentary committee that the UK would have fared better during the coronavirus crisis if it had increased testing capacity more quickly.

And again in the usually loyal Telegraph, there is a savage sketch of Health Secretary Matt Hancock for telling the shadow minister for mental health and A&E doctor Rosena Allin-Khan to “watch her tone” when she asked whether a lack of testing had cost some patients their lives.

“Would Matt Hancock have told a male MP to watch his tone? I don’t think so,” writes the paper’s columnist Claire Cohen, as another report in the same paper describes him losing his grip and looking “like a haunted teabag”.

Trivial examples? “Taken individually, maybe,” says one pundit. “But they are straws in the wind. There is a storm brewing because of alarm over the UK’s death rate.”

Yet, only yesterday, a major opinion survey said that trust in government has reached record levels in the UK – rising faster than any other market in the world, according to the latest Edelman Trust Barometer.

Should we trust government less?

Things fall apart

Yes, say some. We all want to believe in the skills of a pilot when a plane flies into a storm. But if they make too many mistakes, it is much better for someone else to grab the controls. The media and the Labour opposition need to be much tougher on the British government now.

Hang on, say others. Government is the art of the possible, not the perfect. It is childish to expect magic solutions. Britain faces unique challenges, including huge cities, huge airports, and one of the highest levels of obesity in Western Europe. In the circumstances, the UK is not doing a bad job.

You Decide

  1. Do you think politicians are good people doing their best?
  2. Would you be a good leader? In fact, would you be a good cabinet minister one day?


  1. Make a list of the three people you would trust most in a crisis – not including your parents or guardians. Then list the top three qualities that make them trustworthy.
  2. “The British public is too cynical.” Think about this. Make notes for a speech that argues this, and advocate a more forgiving attitude towards those in authority.

Some People Say...

“During an unprecedented time when government response at all levels could mean the difference between life and death, the public is placing its faith in government to lead the fight against the virus.”

The Edelman Trust Barometer 2020

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that Britain was among the last countries in Europe to impose lockdown. It struggled to ramp up testing capacity to the levels seen in Germany and Italy. The UK has one of the highest levels of obesity in Western Europe, and its cities are among the most densely populated in Europe. Britain’s airports are also among the busiest in Europe and, yet, the country was slow to close its borders.
What do we not know?
There remains dispute about whether it is fair to say that consistent lack of leadership from the prime minister has led to a colossal failure to address the shortcomings in provisions of PPE; an unacceptable delay in significant testing and contact-tracing, and no sketch of an exit plan.

Word Watch

Office for National Statistics
The ONS is the UK’s largest independent producer of official statistics. It is a non-ministerial department which reports directly to the UK Parliament.
A slightly higher figure than it appears in the graphic above because it was updated this morning.
Shadow minister for mental health
Shadow ministers from the Opposition party (currently Labour) have the important role of closely examining the work of the government and individual ministers. Each shadow minister focuses on the work of a particular minister and government department. Shadow ministers also put forward and explain opposition policies.
Accident and Emergency department.
An expert in a particular subject or field, who is often asked to give their opinions to the public.
Straws in the wind
A figure of speech meaning a minor event or action that predicts or foreshadows a future bigger event.
Edelman Trust Barometer
According to its own website, the Edelman Trust Barometer is the most comprehensive study of trust in the world. Every year for the past 20 years, Edelman has examined trust in business, government, media, and non-governmental organisations (like Oxfam and Médecins Sans Frontières).

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