Is Britain Undercounting the Human and Economic Toll of Coronavirus?


LONDON — As Britain closes in on 100,000 reported cases of the coronavirus — a solemn milestone in a contagion that has ravaged its political leadership — a raft of new statistics suggests that the government is undercounting the human, and economic, cost of the epidemic.

The government’s Office of National Statistics released data on Tuesday revealing that the death toll from the virus could be at least 10 percent higher than the official toll of 12,107 because that number does not take into account people who die in nursing homes or in their own residences.

At the same time, the Office for Budget Responsibility, a fiscal watchdog group, said the lockdown could shrink Britain’s economy by 35 percent in the second quarter and throw two million people out of work — a prediction even worse than the government’s darkest warnings.

Taken together, these new numbers cast a grim shadow over Britain’s response to the epidemic, which has already been dogged by shortfalls in testing and questions about the supply of ventilators and protective gear.

And the government, buoyed by the release of Prime Minister Boris Johnson from the hospital after his bout with coronavirus, found itself on the defensive about how it was handling both the surge in cases and the economic fallout.

“It is important that we be honest with people about what might be happening,” the chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, acknowledged at a briefing on Tuesday. “These are tough times, and there will be more to come.”

As in the United States and other countries, nursing homes in Britain have become hot zones for the virus. Two major operators have reported 521 deaths in their homes in recent weeks, many of which have not yet been reflected in the official statistics because of a lag in recording the deaths.

The daily death toll, which is published by Public Health England, has become the main barometer for measuring Britain’s handling of the crisis. But it covers only patients who died in hospitals, which has aroused suspicions that the government is trying to improve its performance relative to neighbors like France, which includes nursing home deaths in its statistics.

British officials said Tuesday that they would work to include the nursing home death statistics in the overall death figures, but noted it was difficult to do so because, unlike with hospitals, there is no centralizing reporting system for nursing homes.

Britain’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, estimated this week that 13 percent of the country’s nursing homes, or more than 2,000 facilities, had been struck by outbreaks. The nursing staff in many of those homes have complained about an acute shortage of masks, gloves, and other protective gear.

Critics said the government, in its intense focus on shoring up the National Health Service, was neglecting the nursing industry, which is more dispersed and run mainly by private companies and charities.

“It’s almost as if the system has been stacked against them,” Baroness Ros Altmann, a member of the House of Lords who campaigns on behalf of the elderly, said to the BBC. “We’ve got to realize what’s happening and step up the measures we’re taking to protect vulnerable elderly people.”

In the data released on Tuesday, the Office of National Statistics reported that from the beginning of the year until April 3, there were 217 deaths from the coronavirus in nursing homes in England and Wales; 136 in private homes; and 33 deaths in hospices.

It estimated that 90.2 percent of deaths from the virus occurred in hospitals, while the rest occurred in nursing homes, hospices, or at home. The statistics do not include Scotland or Northern Ireland.

But for the week of March 28 to April 3, the office reported 16,387 deaths in England and Wales, the largest weekly total since it began compiling data in 2005, and 6,082 more than the five-year average death toll for that week. It reported that 3,475 deaths were registered as involving coronavirus.

This suggests either that people are dying of other illnesses at significantly greater than normal rates or that coronavirus is killing even more people than is being accounted for. Medical experts say the lockdown, and the strains on the National Health Service, are leading some people to put off elective surgery or treatments for chronic illnesses, which in turn leads to higher death rates.

Devi Sridhar, the director of the global health governance program at Edinburgh University, said the fuzziness in the data was further evidence of the government’s failure to ramp up testing.

“When you can’t test, there’s no way you can determine if the cause of death was coronavirus,” she said.

While the government has promised to conduct 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month, it performed only 14,506 during the 24-hour period ending on Monday morning. That was lower than the 18,000 tests performed during a comparable period the previous weekend.

Mr. Sunak, the chancellor of the Exchequer, did not dispute the economic figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility, though he highlighted its assertion that this was just one scenario and that the economy could bounce back quickly from a deep trough once the lockdown was lifted. But some economists said they were skeptical of a rapid return to normality.

“I don’t buy that the U.K. is going to recover as strongly as the O.B.R. data would suggest,” said Simon Tilford, director of research at Forum New Economy, an economic research institute. “It assumes that a shock of this magnitude is not going to do any lasting damage to the economy.”

Making up for lost consumption, particularly in the services sector, would be difficult, said Mr. Tilford, who described the long-term projections as overly optimistic. The report assumes that it is “possible to put the economy into deep freeze and for it to jump straight back to life,” he added.

Playing down reports of tensions within the government over when to reopen the economy, officials rejected reports that the Treasury is pushing for a speedy end to the lockdown. Mr. Sunak said the key to returning to economic health lies in first overcoming the medical crisis.

The lockdown is likely to extend well into next month.

In a sign of troubles to come, companies are showing greater than expected interest in the government’s program to avert job losses by paying 80 percent of the wages of people unable to work because of the lockdown. In a survey, about 44 percent of companies said at least half their staff would be paid through the program.

“The lockdown will clearly have a very significant impact on the economy including increased unemployment, lower government revenues and a higher level of national indebtedness,” said Mel Stride, chairman of the House of Commons Treasury select committee.



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