The UK is on a trajectory towards the highest death toll in Europe. Deaths per million does not look good either – currently fourth and on a path for third or second. Scotland is slightly behind the UK as a whole, but on a similar trajectory. No objective comparative analysis could say that Scotland and the UK are dealing with this well so far.
Apparently First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is unfazed. On 15 March she said the Scottish Government were seeking to take decisions “on a consistent UK four nations basis”, and yesterday she confirmed that was for “simplicity of messaging” and not because her hands are tied.
“If evidence tells us that we need to do something different in Scotland than the rest of the UK, or on a different timescale, we will not hesitate to do that,” she said.
This suggests that the First Minister believes the UK Government have taken the right actions at the right time up until now, but surely the evidence suggests otherwise? Covid-19 hit Germany at the same time as the UK, but it began cancelling events at the end of February while the UK waited until 16 March to shut pubs and bars (and until 23 March for a full lockdown). Germany also rolled out a mass contact tracing and testing programme early, while the UK and Scotland withdrew efforts to trace the virus on 12 March, only now looking at how to re-introduce such a programme at scale. The difference in results is clear: Germany reached a milestone of over 50,000 recovered from The Coronavirus on Monday, with 3,184 deaths, just 28 per cent of the UK death toll.
“I don’t think it is possible to draw firm conclusions by comparing other countries right now,” the First Minister said on Monday. “We need to make sure we compare like with like, population size and density.”
Population size and density are not the best correlations for the pandemic. As FT data specialist John Burn-Murdoch has shown, there is a much stronger correlation in death tolls based on how early countries locked down than density or population size. But even on the basis of the metrics Sturgeon has proposed, it does not help the UK’s response look any better.
The UK has 274 people per square kilometre. It has a population of 66.6 million, and has had 11,329 Covid-19 deaths.
Germany has 226 people per square kilometre. It has a population of 83 million, and has had 3,043 Covid-19 deaths.
South Korea has 503 people per square kilometre. It has a population of 51.64 million, and has had 217 Covid-19 deaths.
Indeed, less than half as many people have died in South Korea as in Scotland, a country with a density of 65 people per kilometre. In Singapore – density 8358 people per square kilometre, population 5.64 million (similar to Scotland’s) – just nine people have died.
Even the UK Government’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty has said a comparison with Germany suggests the latter has “got ahead” on community testing. Austria and Norway are two other European countries which appear to have got to grips with this. If you don’t compare, you don’t learn – and it’s essential to learn from best practise in a fast-moving global crisis.
International comparison is here to stay, I’m afraid. It’s absolutely clear that the countries which are making a decent fist of controlling this virus all went “hard and early”, as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has put it. New Zealand’s “elimination” strategy combined an early lockdown with rigorous community testing and tracing, and are reaping the rewards of one of the lowest death rates per million in the world.
No one is saying NZ is the same as Scotland. But neither does that mean we cannot learn. Indeed, that is why Scotland is in a wellbeing economy governments group with NZ and Iceland – to learn and share best practise. Iceland too has got something to teach Scotland, having tested 10 per cent of its population, more than any other country in the world. The best national testing data on the planet has uncovered that half of all those who have contracted the virus show no symptoms.
Maybe it’s time to have a wellbeing economy governments group Zoom call to talk about The Coronavirus. Probably best to let NZ and Iceland do most of the talking. It’s never too late to learn.