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UK virus death toll now second highest

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The UK has overtaken Italy to report the highest official COVID-19 death toll in Europe, and second only to the United States.

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Weekly figures from Britain’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) added more than 7000 deaths in England and Wales in the week to April 24, raising the total for the UK to 32,313.

The daily cumulative death toll published by Britain’s government – which unlike the ONS figures records deaths only for confirmed coronavirus cases – also rose on Tuesday to 29,427, exceeding Italy’s own daily toll for the first time.

Only the US, with a population nearly five times greater, has suffered more confirmed fatalities from the virus than Britain, according to the data so far.

Tuesday’s figures are based on death certificate mentions of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, including suspected cases.

While different ways of counting make comparisons with other countries difficult, the figure confirmed Britain was among those hit worst by a pandemic that has killed more than 250,000 worldwide.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said it was too early to compare different countries’ responses to the pandemic.

“I don’t think we’ll get a real verdict on how countries have done until the pandemic is over, and particularly until we’ve got international comprehensive data on all-cause mortality,” he said.

Opposition politicians said the figures proved the government had been too slow to provide enough protective equipment to hospitals and introduce mass testing.

“I’d be amazed if, when we look back, we don’t think ‘yep we could have done something differently there’,” the government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said in response to lawmakers’ questions on testing.

Responding to the ONS figures, a Downing Street spokesman pointed to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent comments that Britain had passed the peak of the disease but remained in a “dangerous phase”.

Italy and Spain, the next worst-hit European countries, have smaller populations than Britain, further complicating comparisons.

Oxford University professor of evidence-based medicine Carl Heneghan cautioned against unhelpful comparisons but said serious questions remained.

“Putting a graph out with the United States at the top and UK second is not helpful, but once you start to break it down by looking at the population we should be seriously asking questions about what’s different,” he said.

“Why are six countries disproportionately affected?”

Meanwhile, the White House is having preliminary talks about when to wind down its coronavirus task force, despite the US having the world’s highest virus death toll with more than 70,000 fatalities so far.

Pence said President Donald Trump was starting to look at May 25 as the time to shift management of the response to the pandemic, which has killed more than 70,000 Americans so far.

Trump placed Pence in charge of the taskforce, which has been meeting almost every day since it was formed in March.

Conversations are taking place about “what the proper time is for the task force to complete its work and for the ongoing efforts to take place on an agency-by-agency level,” Pence said, confirming a New York Times report.

“We’ve already begun to talk about a transition plan with FEMA,” he said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency that has played a lead role in distributing urgently needed supplies across the country.

The US death toll from COVID-19, the disease caused by the highly contagious virus, is the highest in the world.

Democratic politicians and some Republicans have criticised Trump for playing down the threat and now encouraging states to start to re-open economies that were shut down to try to curb the virus’ spread.

Deborah Birx, the coronavirus task response coordinator, said the team would “keep a close eye on the data.” Birx said the group was looking at outbreaks in Chicago and Des Moines, Iowa, as points of concern.

-with AAP

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