Over the last two years, a popular narrative has come to dominate discussions about the UK’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Britain, it was suggested, had fared uniquely badly due to what the Government’s critics saw as a laissez-faire attitude to the virus compared to other nations.
Boris Johnson’s Government was frequently, and intemperately, accused of having blood on its hands for not locking down earlier, or reopening too soon. In relying on their population’s common sense rather than official lockdown measures, Sweden, many said, was acting irresponsibly and would pay a terrible price.
A new study of excess deaths published in The Lancet flies in the face of such arguments. It suggests that the UK Covid-19 death rate compares much more favourably to the rest of the world than previously thought. Many experts believe measuring excess deaths gives a more accurate insight, by discounting those who would have died anyway during the period and taking account of under-reporting of Covid in some countries. By this metric, the UK emerges in the middle of the global rankings, with a similar Covid death rate to France and Germany. Meanwhile, Sweden was found to have one of the best excess death rates in Europe.
Since the emergence of the pandemic, our understanding of the virus has changed many times – revealing both the limits of official wisdom and the folly of jumping to conclusions. As we near the second anniversary of the first national lockdown and attention turns to the lessons that must be learned, findings such as these should offer a serious moment of reflection.