Coronavirus infection rate in UK is second highest of any major European country

The UK currently has the second highest coronavirus infection rate of any major European country, according to Sky News analysis.

Only Sweden, which decided not to impose a lockdown, has a higher rate of infection.

In the last week of May, there were 236 newly confirmed cases per million population in the UK.

The findings confirm the concern expressed on Wednesday by the UK’s chief scientific officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, that the country’s epidemic has a “long tail”, with both cases and deaths taking longer to fall than he would like.

The coronavirus pandemic has evolved differently across Europe, affecting countries in the West more than those in the East.

The level of infection and the deaths in all these countries are now coming down, but not all are improving at the same pace.

In the UK and Sweden, the number of daily confirmed cases remains high and the shape of their epidemic is diverging from those of Spain, France and Italy.

One possible reason is the timing and strictness of the lockdown.

Measures in response to the COVID-19 outbreak have been different among countries and Sweden has been the least restrictive, as data from the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response shows.

A group of researchers from the University of Oxford has tracked and compared the policies each government around the world has taken, and they have developed the containment and closure policies index to allow comparisons.

This metric is called a stringency index and it includes measures such as school closures and restrictions in movement.

The UK’s stringency level has been lower than the other most affected countries (Spain, Italy and Belgium).

Professor Keith Neal, Emeritus professor of the Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases at University of Nottingham, said it is difficult to know why the UK infection rate is not falling in line with its European neighbours without knowing where cases are prevalent.

“While we are told 2,000 cases are being identified each day, we are not told where those cases are. Infections are happening in three different settings – care homes, hospitals and the community. It is important to know the prevalence in each as the infection is controlled differently, for example social distancing doesn’t work in a care home whilst infection control does.”

Another possible reason infections are taking longer to reduce in the UK could be population density which is often a crucial factor in the spread of respiratory diseases.

Professor Neal added: “We know that population dense cities like London, Paris and Madrid have been worst affected. In fact, they are twice the size of Berlin which has been less affected. This is partly due to social mixing patterns, as people in more densely populated areas have more daily contacts and that raises the potential for the virus to spread.”

All these European countries have begun to ease their lockdowns since the beginning of May, and this might have an impact on future infections.

Monitoring the true presence of COVID-19 among the population is complicated by a lack of quality data, not just in the UK. So, the figures for the number of confirmed cases should be treated with caution.

When presenting the government total of around 2,000 daily cases, Sir Patrick Vallance was quick to add that the Office for National Statistics has suggested the true number could be nearer 8,000 new daily infections. This means the UK is only identifying one in four potential cases.

Finding new cases depends on the amount and quality of testing.

While other countries are also imperfect in this area, the UK has been heavily criticised for its testing regime. The head of the UK Statistics Authority has called it “inadequate” and the government has not published the number of people tested for almost two weeks. It says it is concerned some people who have taken more than one test might be double counted.

As the government continues to lift the lockdown, testing is a critical part of its strategy for monitoring the virus. The Test, Track and Trace programme is in its early stages and some of the scientists advising the government have warned it needs to be fully operational before restrictions are eased further. They also caution that the rate of infection is still too high for contract tracing to be effective.

Nevertheless, Professor Neal believes “contact tracing will help to discover the route of transmission and this will be vital for improving the control of COVID-19” in the UK.

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For now, the UK has the highest infection rate of any European country that attempted a lockdown. Both Sir Patrick Vallance and the UK government will hope the ‘curve’ starts to show a sharper decline over the next few weeks. How that compares to other countries will depend on how the virus responds to the lifting of the lockdown.

(c) Sky News 2020: Coronavirus infection rate in UK is second highest of any major European country


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