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Coronavirus: Boris Johnson claims ‘massive success’ despite England having highest excess death rate in Europe

PM urges Britons not to ‘lose focus’ on social-distancing rules, as he is pictured bumping elbows and is branded ‘delusional’ by Labour

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
,Jon Stone
Thursday 30 July 2020 14:28 BST
Boris Johnson claims 'massive success' on coronavirus

Boris Johnson has boasted of “massive success” in reducing the number of fatalities from coronavirus on the day when new figures showed the UK has had the highest excess death rate of any country in Europe during the crisis.

The prime minister’s claim was branded “delusional” by Labour, who said his record – which has seen the UK top global tables for per-capita deaths from coronavirus – was “appalling”.

And the picture painted by the Office for National Statistics was particularly grim for England, where the lengthy Covid-19 outbreak, combined with the fact it had one of the highest peak deaths of any country, resulted in “the highest levels of excess mortality in Europe for the period as a whole”. Scotland, where Nicola Sturgeon has diverged from Westminster’s approach to coronavirus, fared slightly better in the excess death ranking, behind both England and Spain, while Wales and Northern Ireland were further down the table.

As updated guidance across the UK extended the period of self-isolation from seven to 10 days for people with coronavirus symptoms, Mr Johnson acknowledged that the disease was “bubbling up” in as many as 30 parts of the country and said he was concerned about a “resurgence” of Covid-19 after the relaxation of restrictions in parts of continental Europe.

He urged Britons not to “lose focus” on observing social-distancing rules as the country emerges from strict lockdown with the reopening of shops and pubs and the return to workplaces which he has encouraged from the start of August.

But the PM, who was not wearing a face covering, appeared to breach his government’s own guidelines as he bumped elbows with police officers during a visit to North Yorkshire Police HQ in Northallerton. The “one metre-plus” guidance issued last month states that people should maintain two metres distance from those outside their household at all times, reduced to one metre if they are taking steps to mitigate the risk of spreading the disease, such as wearing a mask. It applies even to those who, like the PM, have already recovered from a Covid infection.

Speaking during his visit to North Yorkshire, Mr Johnson said: “Clearly this country has had a massive success now in reducing the numbers of those tragic deaths.

“We’ve got it at the moment under some measure of control. The numbers of deaths are well, well down.

“But I have to tell you that we’re looking at a resurgence of the virus in some other European countries. You can see what’s been happening in the United States.”

Mr Johnson said that “great progress” is being made in treating coronavirus with drugs like dexamethasone and remdesivir.

But he added: “Broadly speaking, the only way to control coronavirus is if everybody collectively obeys the social distancing rules and works together to drive the virus down.

“So that’s why I make this point that I do – we’ve done a huge amount. Together we’ve really reduced the incidence of the virus and we’ve got the number of deaths down.

“But it can come up again, and we’ve seen what is happening in other European countries, so what I’m saying to people is don’t lose focus, don’t lose discipline, continue to observe those guidelines and if you have symptoms, get a test.”

Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, responded: “This PM has absolutely no shame and is becoming increasingly delusional. He should show some humility.

“His government has handled the coronavirus epidemic very poorly and let so many people down, now turning to blame Europe for our appalling record.”

Excess mortality is a measure of how many more people than usual died during a given period and is regarded by the ONS as the best way of measuring the impact of the pandemic on death rates internationally as it overcomes problems caused by variation in the methods of counting cases in different countries.

Internationally, only Spain had a higher peak than England, but the shorter length of its outbreak means that England was worst hit overall over the period covered by the statistics in the first half of 2020.

The UK was notably slower than most of its neighbours to impose lockdown-style measures, and also slow to bring a proper test and trace system online after scaling back testing early in the pandemic. The government was also advising against mask use by the public until at least April before changing its advice, in contrast with many other countries.

The statistics authority said England’s outbreak was also notably more broadly spread across the country than in other European nations, where outbreaks were contained in concentrated areas.

Birmingham had the worst peak of any major British city with 249.7 per cent excess mortality in the week ending 17 April, while Brent in north London was the worst-hit local authority area with 357.5 per cent.

“What we’ve seen in Italy and Spain, which were the other countries really heavily affected by Covid-19, was that they had a very localised pandemic. So the impact in the regions of northern Italy and central Spain were much higher than anything we’ve seen in the UK – but in the UK it was much wider spread. So we saw excess deaths from Cornwall to Shetland and everywhere in between,” Ben Humberstone of the ONS told the BBC.

He added: “Although the UK at the peak of the pandemic didn’t see the highest peak of deaths, the pandemic and its effects did last slightly longer in the UK which pushed up that total number of deaths.”

Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary, said the prime minister should “take responsibility” for the death toll.

“The official confirmation today that England has had the highest level of excess deaths in Europe is a devastating moment,” he said.

Munira Wilson, Liberal Democrat health spokesperson, said: “It didn’t need to be like this.

“It is clear the government has made mistakes. With a possible second wave occurring in countries across Europe at the moment, the prime minister must launch an independent inquiry immediately.”

Warning that the UK was not “out of the woods” of the coronavirus crisis, Mr Johnson named Kirklees, Ashford and Leicester as among “between 10 and 30” areas of the UK where spikes of infections have been seen since the easing of lockdown.

An expected announcement on the review of Leicester’s local lockdown failed to materialise, leaving mayor Sir Peter Soulsby to accuse the government of messing the city about and declare: “What a way to run a country!”

But despite concerns about a second wave of coronavirus and the reintroduction of quarantine on holidaymakers returning from Spain, he encouraged families to travel within the UK for summer breaks.

Mr Johnson said he was “very, very keen” to support the UK tourist industry and said: “I am not going to discourage anybody from having a staycation. There are fantastic beaches, resorts, holiday destinations of all kinds and I thoroughly recommend them.”

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