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The UK: how did it fare?

The UK: how did it fare?

How has the UK handled Covid across the year and compared with other countries? And how did the four nations of the UK compare in their different approaches? We’ll look at infections, hospitalisations and mortality rates as well as excess deaths, secondary health impact, and economic and social costs to develop a picture of how the virus impacted different communities of the UK and beyond.

For the first two months of 2020, the story of a new, contagious virus sweeping across China and then the world developed minute by minute. By late January the Chinese province where it originated was shutting down. The UK’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, said the risk to the UK was low but over the next two months Italy and then Spain followed China into lockdown. There was still an apparent reluctance on the part of the UK government to accept that the virus could disrupt everyday life. The COBRA team held five meetings on Covid in February and March, without the prime minister in attendance.

Nine months later the UK has recorded over 70,000 excess deaths, and at various points has had the worst per capita death rate in the world. The OECD predicts that the UK will have suffered the worst economic hit in Europe. Long reads on the apparent calamity of the UK’s response have become a staple in the international press (for example in the Sydney Morning Herald and the New Yorker).

However, the UK is not the only country to have tens of thousands of excess deaths, and many countries with more effective Covid responses in terms of infection and death rates have failed to avoid a second wave, and another lockdown, this winter. So where does the UK stand? Which effects of this pandemic were unavoidable, and which were self-inflicted?

Excess Deaths, by countries

The UK has the fourth worst number of excess deaths among countries where data is available, taking the latest available data for late summer / early autumn.

Case numbers

A handful of major countries rank worse than the UK for Covid cases per capita, with Belgium the worst in Europe.


The number of hospitalisations per capita has been higher in France, Belgium and Italy, for both waves of the virus, than in the UK.

Economic pain

The UK has the worst projected negative growth of any country in the Global North, according to the OECD.

Unemployment rose by 300,000 or 1 per cent in the first half of the year, but the Bank of England forecasts a steep further increase to around 7.7 per cent by the middle of 2021.

Public borrowing stands at £317 billion so far for 2020-21, a five-fold increase on the financial year ending March 2020.

Social cost

The pandemic revealed and reinforced existing inequalities and social stress.

More than 40,000 calls were made to the National Domestic Abuse helpline during the first three months of lockdown, an increase of 800 per cent compared with pre-lockdown levels.

New benefits claims peaked at over 140,000 in late March, a 15-fold increase on normal levels.

During the first lockdown, 1 in 4 schools in the UK were able to offer their pupils either one to two hours a week of remote teaching or none at all, according to the Edge Foundation. Ofsted, the schools regulator, reported a pattern of regression among the most disadvantaged children in its September survey, based on 900 school visits.

The false dichotomy?

There is a broad correlation between deaths per capita and negative economic hit: some countries buck the trend but most tend to succeed or fail on both counts.


Though deciphering consistent patterns of the risk factors, symptoms and co-morbidities of Coronavirus has often been elusive, the current evidence suggests being overweight increases your chances of contracting the virus. Public health has consistently been overlooked as a policy priority in the UK, most notably in England, and so the rates of obesity are significantly higher here.

The sickman of Europe?

Clarity on risk factors, symptoms and co-morbidities of Coronavirus has been elusive, but current evidence suggests being overweight increases your chances of contracting the virus – and obesity rates are significantly higher in England than elsewhere in the UK.

How does the British public feel the government have handled the pandemic?

The UK public was broadly supportive of the government’s response in March but that support dipped sharply in March and again in September. Compliance with test and trace has been patchy, and public trust in the government has decreased over the course of the year.