Covid-19: The UK’s Loose Lockdown

The Sunday Times Insight team reported yesterday (paywall) that the UK could have avoided thousands of Covid-19 deaths by going into lockdown earlier. If we had done so we could now be like New Zealand, which has now had no new cases for several days.

But is that the only mistake we’ve made?

Consider this graph (Fig 1) created using the FT’s (free) interactive coronavirus tracker:

Fig 1: Covid-19 reported deaths per million (from FT)

I’ve selected a few West European countries with similarly severe epidemics (note the scale is daily deaths per million). Belgium’s figures are inflated because they’ve reported more deaths in care homes as due to Covid-19. In fact, if we look at overall excess deaths since the start of 2020, also from the FT, it seems the UK is worst of a bad bunch:

Fig 2 Excess deaths 2020, selected countries (from FT)

But what I’m interested in here is, first, the similarity between the Covid-19 death-rate curves in Fig 1. The 5 countries reached a similar level of peak daily deaths per million at similar times after the start of their epidemics (not calendar dates – Italy is most advanced, as shown by where the curves end in blobs to the right of the curves).

So, although the UK locked down late – despite being able to see what was happening in Italy – we in fact locked down (and therefore prevented daily deaths continuing to rise) at a similar stage in our epidemic to other West European countries that experienced severe epidemics. The late lockdown was not necessarily sufficient for us to have the worst epidemic in Europe, as shown in Fig 2 (I say not necessarily sufficient, because the data in Fig 2 only takes account of reporting up to May 8th).

So let’s look also at the differences between the curves of Covid-19 death rates in Fig 1. The UK’s daily deaths per million is now higher than that of any other country at the same stage in their epidemic. Our blob (to the right of the graph) is above all the other coloured lines.

Is this just something to do with the reporting of deaths? Has the UK managed to keep patients alive for longer, perhaps, moving deaths to the right? Or reported them later, with the same effect? It seems not, since, as seen in Fig 3, we are also detecting significantly more cases than the other countries:

Fig 3: Covid-19 reported cases per million (from FT)

Note that (for clarity) I had to use a logarithmic scale in Fig 3, so the UK’s performance is even worse than it looks. Obviously, there are differences in testing regimes between the 5 countries, but by now all of them must surely be detecting a large proportion of symptomatic cases. Since, if anything, the UK’s performance on testing has been poor, Fig 3 certainly supports the evidence in Fig 1.

What this means is that the UK has been less successful in suppressing their Covid-19 epidemic than any of the other hard-hit countries, Italy, Spain, France and Belgium.


Answering that question in detail is likely to keep armies of statisticians fully occupied for years to come. There are two main lines of inquiry:
1. The UK’s failure to prevent the spread of the virus in hospitals and from there into care homes.
2. The UK’s relatively lax lockdown and failure to mandate the wearing of masks on public transport and in supermarkets.

I suspect both sets of failure have contributed to the UK’s disastrous performance. And don’t forget it was the late lockdown that put us in League 2 in the first place. The Premier League is those countries who paid attention to the simple arithmetic that shows the need to lock down early and lock down hard.