- 29 Apr 20
Every night over the past month and more, figures have been trotted out across the media concerning the numbers that have died in the UK – including Northern Ireland – as a result of the global coronavirus pandemic. But those figures were deliberately misleading. The stark and deeply shocking truth is that, when you drill down into the numbers, the UK emerges, almost certainly, as the country in Europe that is worst hit by deaths as a result of Covid-19.
Boris Johnson returned to work on Monday. There was a possibility that it might be a turning point in the way in which the UK is dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. And so we waited with a high degree of curiosity for what the Prime Minister would have to say. Inevitably, there was only disappointment. His first speech after a month out of action was classic Boris: all fudge and waffle but ultimately essentially tasteless. Not even sweet: just cloying.
The truth about Covid-19 in the UK is stark and deeply upsetting.
Why should Irish people care? Because the British are our nearest neighbours. Because we share common cultural cause in more ways than could ever be counted. Because a lot of Irish people – first, second and third generation – live there.
Because we do a huge amount of business with Britain. Because it is where all of our top footballers ply their trade; it is where the record companies are based that sign our brightest musical talent; it is where Irish comedians, broadcasters, film-makers and musicians are most likely to go to spread their creative wings and find success in a bigger market that was traditionally more liberal and less judgemental than Ireland. Because it has extended a welcoming hand to, and made stars of, people like Bob Geldof, Graham Norton, Graham Linehan, Dara Ó Briain, Sharon Horgan, Laura Whitmore, Angela Scanlon, Andrew Scott, Riyadh Khalaf, Labour MP Conor McGinn and hundreds more.
Because we follow their football teams. Because we have a common travel area. Because millions of British people visit Ireland every year. Because there are lots of people there, who I love.
And because, politically, there is the fact we have on the island of Ireland a border, on one side of which policies made in Ireland apply; and on the other UK diktats dominate. In the context of our attempts to limit the damage inflicted by Covid-19 among Irish people, that is a very big deal.
CARNAGE IN THE UK
That thought becomes all the more urgent, when you factor in that the UK is almost certainly, at this moment, the hardest-hit country in the world in terms of deaths from Covid-19.
To be clear about it, the figures that have been trotted out nightly by the UK Government along the way told a very different story.
But those figures were a lie: calculated, deliberate, pre-meditated.
I am not being melodramatic. There is no doubt, whatsoever, that the way the figures have been presented in the UK was designed specifically to mislead the British public – and to effectively minimise the death toll, compared to other European countries in particular.
What else would you expect from a Government that dragged the UK out of the European Union? To truthfully acknowledge that, bad as things were in Spain and Italy and France, they were worse the length and breadth of Britain? No. During the Brexit debate, they had got used to dissembling. It had become a way of life. The decision was made, in a very familiar modus operandi, to Carry On Regardless.
The entire, monstrously self-regarding ideological project of Brexit was based on the premise that the UK is much better at just about everything than the bureaucratic minions in Brussels, including of course science and medicine. So Britain would simply have to have a lower mortality rate. Wouldn’t it?
And so the method of reporting figures – decided by someone in Government: who? – was designed to present the least bad picture that could be drawn at any given moment.
However, you can only carry on this kind of charade for so long. Now, the reality is beginning to catch up on Boris Johnson and his creepy cabal of government advisers.
If you look at the figures on Worldometers, the UK currently ranks fifth in the world, for the total number of deaths in any country from Covid-19. But the total of deaths attributed to the UK in that context reflects only those that have died in a hospital setting. It does not include deaths in nursing homes. In care centres. In prisons. In the community.
On Tuesday, the worst-hit three in Europe were Italy (26,977), Spain (23,822) and France (23,293). But in each of these three countries, the stated total of deaths includes people who died in those areas that are excluded from the official UK figures.
So let’s take a closer look at the current numbers.
As of Tuesday, the figure for deaths in hospitals in the UK stood at 21,092.
Now, strip out the estimated 45% or so that occurred outside hospitals in Europe's top three, and they all fall far below the current extent of the carnage in the UK.
In Italy, the death toll in hospitals is approximately 15,000. By that yardstick, Britain’s death toll is 40% higher than that of a country which was seen as an exemplar of how appallingly bad things might get. Of how they shouldn’t be done.
CROSSING THE BORDER
There is no sense here of enjoying an opportunity to bash the Brits. On the contrary, it is shocking and painful to hear dispatches from close friends in the UK, who have lost loved ones to what is a brutal illness. There is a tragedy unfolding. And the government is responsible.
What is inescapable, too, is that British policy on Covid-19, and the way in which deaths are recorded, impacts directly on what is happening in Ireland.
For a start, the intelligence of Irish viewers has been insulted afresh every night, by the way in which figures from Northern Ireland were being presented on the RTÉ 9 o’clock news.
Here's how it has worked.
The number of deaths in the Republic is given, along with the number of new cases. A figure is then read out for the number of new deaths in Northern Ireland. In fairness to the news team in RTÉ, the point is made that this is the number of deaths in hospitals. However, the two numbers are then added, and a clearly incorrect figure is given for the number of deaths so far on the island of Ireland.
Why does this matter? Because people are perfectly free to cross the border (as they should be) at any time of day or night. Because there is a clustering of deaths in the border counties of Cavan and Monaghan. Because to understand this strange phenomenon we need proper, accurate information on how many people are infected and the number that are dying on the other side of the border, where different policies have been applied, and from whence infection may have travelled south.
The approach of the British government has frustrated that understanding every step of the way. As has the blind and damaging allegiance of the First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, to addressing the pandemic according to the Boris Johnson playbook.
How many lives in Ireland, south of the border, will be lost as a result? I don't see us threatening to sue a la Donald Trump's latest bit of anti-China presidential election campaigning (what an ass). But we have a right to know.
The good news is that an agreement has belatedly been reached between the authorities North and South of the border that Northern Ireland will begin to include deaths in nursing homes in their daily reports. But even this is not a figure that can be trusted.
Why? Let’s talk about getting an accurate estimation of the real number of deaths in the UK to date.
RATE OF ATTRITION
Hot Press has been watching the official UK Government briefings with increasing incredulity. How are they, we wondered, getting away with telling blatant lies on the evening news? Why are journalists not challenging them?
It turns out that we were not alone in our scepticism. A week ago, having analysed data from the National Office of Statistics, The Financial Times estimated that the real death toll in the UK was a staggering 41,000. The official figure up to that day was just 17,500.
If The Financial Times were right, in normal times, the scale of the deception on a matter, literally, of life and death would be a sackable offence. With a functioning, critical media, it would bring a government down. Not a chance.
To get to the real figure of deaths in the UK requires a bit of lateral thinking.
As reported by The Financial Times, deaths registered in the week ending April 10 were 75% above normal in England and Wales. There were 18,516 deaths registered for that week – which is 8,000 above the five-year average. What caused this spike? The answer was obvious: Covid-19.
But the picture was even worse. Because Good Friday had occurred that week, the National Office of Statistics estimated that there were likely to have been another 2,000 as yet unrecorded deaths.
It isn’t rocket science, but The Financial Times figures are well researched and painstakingly calculated. They looked at the average death rate over the past five years across the weeks since Covid-19 was first detected in the UK. And they compared this year’s registered deaths with that average.
There is, of course, a margin of error. But it is common sense that their resulting estimate of the true rate of attrition as a result of Covid-19 is very close to the reality. In contrast, the official figures are so far out that they have to qualify as deliberately, criminally, misleading.
THE UNVARNISHED TRUTH
In response to these and other similar estimates, the Office of National Statistics in the UK yesterday published a fresh set of figures. They confirm, for slow learners, that the death toll has indeed been much higher than the official figures pretended. Again, however, these new figures do not give a complete picture.
In their report, the ONS stated that by April 17, a total of 21,2844 people had died with mentions of Covid-19 on their death certificates. That was 52% higher than the official figures which had been trotted out by the UK government up to that time. A similar adjustment to the latest figures would, anyway, also see the UK top the mortality list of European countries, with approximately 32,000 deaths.
The reality, however, is that there are Covid-19 related deaths where that connection has not been made on the death certificates. We just don’t know how many exactly.
Well, that’s not the government’s fault, you might say. However, the culture of not acknowledging the reality where you can avoid it comes from the top. When a national face-saving exercise has been officially sanctioned, it is hardly surprising that there is a tendency among officialdom to act accordingly.
The truth is that not every death certificate will reference Covid-19, even where it should. It may even be that there is a clear desire on the part of nursing homes and similar institutions not to mention the virus. Either way, it seems highly unlikely that the number of deaths in nursing homes in the UK is proportionally very different to that in Ireland.
So, let's look at the numbers in Ireland.
As of Tuesday, there had been 1,102 deaths in Ireland. Almost 60% of these took place in nursing homes.
If the same were true in the UK, and you start from the official figure from a week ago of 17,500, you arrive at a probable overall death toll – at that point – of 43,000.
Which is very close to the estimate arrived at by The Financial Times. Which, further, brings us back to a common sense conclusion: these figures do not lie. If there were any other explanation for a huge spike in deaths in the UK, we’d know all about it...
With all of this as background, it has been nauseating over the past few weeks, to watch successive UK ministers take to the podium for the daily media briefing, with crude messages about the virus stuck Trump-like on the front, and claim that at all times during the coronavirus crisis the British government’s response has been "led by the science."
This too is a lie: a desperate attempt to retro-fit this narrative to a catastrophic story, when what happened was very different indeed.
With Boris Johnson’s return to the plinth outside No. 10 Downing Street, the British people were entitled to believe that they might finally get the unvarnished truth. But they didn't.
In reality, the British government had the advice and the expertise of the scientists and medical experts at the World Health Organisation at their disposal. They were also in a position to see what had happened in Italy and in Spain, where government action had not been quick or effective enough.
And yet the British government, led by Boris Johnson, made a calculated decision that they would ignore the advice of the WHO and plough on with their own half-baked strategy.
It was an extension of the spirit of British exceptionalism which inspired Brexit. It was presented as the action of a courageous government that was willing to stand up to the experts and to refuse to risk the economic damage that going into lockdown would inflict. It was gung-ho stuff. It was lethal.
It involved the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, personally leading people into jeopardy by insisting that he was not going to stop shaking people’s hands long after the advice had been given to socially distance.
You might say that this was reckless of his own health and well-being – and so it proved when he came down with the virus and had to spend a considerable time in intensive care in St. Thomas Hospital in London (at a considerable cost presumably to the State). But it was also reckless of the health and well-being of British citizens, and (somewhat bizarrely) of supporters of the Tory party in particular – more of whom are in the vulnerable older age group that are more likely to die as a result of Covid-19.
The media in the UK is going easy on Boris Johnson right now. They are, mostly, flying the British flag. To an extent, that is understandable, given how important it is to try to keep the the national spirit afloat during lockdown. As people in Ireland are beginning to realise, that is very tough. And there is the news this morning that his girlfriend Carrie Symonds has had a baby boy, of which he is the acknowledged father.
All three deserve congratulations and good wishes for their future, individually and collectively. It is understandable if that is the dominant tone in the UK media today.
But people are dying and there is no escaping the truth – or there should not be.
In shaking hands, and in being seen on TV shaking hands, in public, Boris Johnson almost certainly contributed directly to some of the huge losses of life that people in the UK are now experiencing.
He endorsed the incompetence – born of arrogance and complacency – that characterised the British government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic right from the start, his warm expressions of gratitude to the NHS for how well he was treated when he was ill and in intensive care notwithstanding.
In blithely promoting the idea of herd immunity, his actions cost lives. In failing to put a proper testing regime in place early enough, his actions cost lives. In relying on behavioural 'scientists’ rather than medical and scientific experts, his actions cost lives. In missing European deadlines for co-operative purchase of PPE, his actions – and those of the Ministers and advisers he appointed – cost lives.
Every step of the way, the arrogance of those in charge of the health and well-being of the people of the United Kingdom cost lives.
We know now that a vastly greater number have died than has been acknowledged. That the UK is almost certainly the worst country in Europe for deaths. And that the figures have, up to now, been doctored to give another, entirely false impression.
All of which begs some simple questions. Should a government that has made such a disastrous mess of the entire Covid-19 saga escape without proper scrutiny or sanction? When are we going to see the real figures being published and acknowledged by the Government, without spin or dissembling? And more pointedly, should this man be allowed to remain as Prime Minister?
In a functioning democracy, the clamour would be deafening, saying: Boris Johnson Out.
We will continue to watch with interest. In the meantime, in Ireland we need to get to the truth behind the extraordinary fact that Cavan and Monaghan have the highest per capita rate of infection with coronavirus in Ireland. Doing so might just save lives north of the border too.