Britain's coronavirus death toll may be vastly understated, study of data suggests

The British government faced a call Wednesday for an inquiry into its handling of the coronavirus crisis after failing to fully explain partial death data, limited testing or the lack of equipment for hospitals. One analysis of government data on deaths suggested the COVID-19 toll could be much higher than the official tally.

Conservatives dispute analysis, face call for a coronavirus inquiry in 'hybrid' Commons session

In this image taken from video, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons in London on Wednesday. The Conservative government was on the defensive during a session in which only a few dozen legislators attended in person, while other MPs asked questions virtually from their homes. (House of Commons/The Associated Press)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday faced a call for an inquiry into his Conservative government's handling of the coronavirus crisis after failing to fully explain partial death data, limited testing or the lack of equipment for hospitals.

The novel coronavirus outbreak, the worst health crisis since the 1918 influenza pandemic, has left governments across the world grappling with stressed populations, a stalled global economy and overloaded health services.

Johnson initially refrained from approving the stringent controls that other European leaders imposed, but he later closed down the country when projections showed a quarter of a million people could die in the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, a Financial Times analysis of statistics office data suggests the novel coronavirus outbreak has caused as many as 41,000 deaths in the United Kingdom. The FT extrapolation is based on the number of all fatalities in official data recorded recently that have exceeded the usual average, including deaths that occurred outside hospitals.

The number of people who have died in hospitals in the United Kingdom after testing positive for the coronavirus has risen to 18,100 as of Tuesday at 4 p.m. local tome, the Health Ministry said on Wednesday, an increase of 763 on the figures published 24 hours earlier. The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 — the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus — had risen to 133,495, it added.

'Hybrid Parliament'

British lawmakers upended 700 years of history by grilling stand-in leader Dominic Raab by video link in an unprecedented but largely successful "hybrid Parliament" session forced by the coronavirus outbreak.

A maximum of 50 lawmakers are physically allowed in the debating chamber, with another 120 permitted to join in via Zoom video conference.

Lawmakers at home, dressed formally in line with the usual dress code for the Commons, quizzed Raab, who was in the chamber, on the government's response.

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Since the lockdown, the government has given conflicting explanations of why it failed to join a European Union ventilator scheme and admitted there have been problems getting health workers enough protective equipment.

"Once we are through this crisis, there will of course need to be an independent inquiry to officially review the government's response to the pandemic," Ed Davey, acting leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats, said in a statement.

"The inquiry must have the strongest possible powers given the shocking failures on protective equipment for staff and the slow response of the government — to get to the truth and to give Boris Johnson the opportunity to answer the increasingly serious questions."

Raab rejected the call for inquiry.

"I have to say I won't take up his offer of committing to a public inquiry. I think that there are definitely lessons to be learned and when we get through this crisis it will be important that we take stock," he said.

In this image taken from video, Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons in London. A few dozen legislators sat, well-spaced, in the Commons, and agreed on arrangements for lawmakers to ask questions from home using videoconferencing program Zoom. (House Commons via The Associated Press)

New Opposition Leader Keir Starmer also appeared in Parliament and spoke of an "emerging pattern."

"We were slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on protective equipment and are slow to take up these offers [to supply equipment] from British firms," said Starmer, leader of the Labour Party.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has faced questions about a pledge to get to 100,000 tests per day done by the end of this month. So far,slightly more than 18,200 tests are being done per day.

He said Wednesday the government would bring in large-scale contact-tracing once the number of new cases of the coronavirus falls.

"As we have reached the peak, as we bring the number of new cases down, so we will introduce contact tracing at large scale," Hancock told Parliament.

Staff at Penlon test ventilators ahead of them being shipped out to the NHS, in Abingdon, England, on Tuesday. An order for ventilators has been placed by the government for the newly adapted design backed by a high-tech manufacturing consortium that includes Formula One racing teams Mercedes, McLaren and Williams. Britain did not join an EU-wide program to buy ventilators, even though it is eligible to. (Steve Parsons/PA/The Associated Press)

There has also been confusion over ventilators.

The top official in Britain's foreign ministry said on Tuesday he had been mistaken when he told a committee of lawmakers the government had made a political decision not to participate in a European scheme to buy ventilators to fight the coronavirus.

Johnson battled grave COVID-19 complications in intensive care earlier this month. A report in the most recent Sunday Times indicated that Johnson missed five consecutive meetings on the coronavirus before the pandemic hit Britain with force.

Parliament later approved an expansion of the business the hybrid sessions could consider to include legislation. It also agreed to allow remote voting for the first time ever — although the way in which this would be conducted has yet to be agreed and no votes are expected until it has been.

Government disputes analysis of total deaths

The analysis of excess deaths in the Financial Times said the true death toll from COVID-19 is likely to be more than double this, based on the FT's analysis of excess deaths in recent data.

On Tuesday, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that 18,516 people died in England and Wales in the week ending April 10, or 7,966 more than the five-year average.

While the ONS records mentions of COVID-19 in death certificates, the sheer volume of extra total deaths — including those that do not mention COVID-19 — means that the true toll from the disease is being undercounted, according to the FT analysis.

This indicates the "real" death toll from the coronavirus is now running around 41,000.

The ONS data on Tuesday provided concrete examples of the under-reporting of COVID-19 deaths.

The statistics showed deaths in care homes had doubled over recent weeks, but only 17 per cent of the death certificates mentioned COVID-19.

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Cambridge professor David Spiegelhalter told the FT that it was not credible that these extra deaths could mostly come as a result of indirect effects from the coronavirus lockdown, such as seriously ill people avoiding hospital.

"There is no suggestion that the collateral damage — however large it is — is anything like as big as the harm from COVID," Spiegelhalter said.

Hancock told reporters that the 40 per cent gap between the daily data and the more comprehensive ONS data was "not an accurate representation of those figures."

Helen Whately, a junior health and social care minister, said that the government would next week publish data on deaths in care homes.

With files from CBC News

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