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How does the UK compare to the rest of the world on handling Covid-19?

The UK is doing a reasonably good job on testing, an important metric. Credit: Our World in Data

March 20, 2020 - 7:00am

I had an uncomfortable moment recently. I realised that I was instinctively treating the UK’s response to coronavirus as sort of a score in a game: we’re doing better than X but not as well as Y, and that implicitly I wanted Y to start doing worse, so that we could overtake them. I had mentally begun to think of it as a league table, in which we can win or lose.

For the record: I don’t know how well we’re doing, in that league table. The brilliant people at Our World In Data — an absolutely vital source for trustworthy information, at any time but especially now — say that by one important measure, testing, we’re doing a reasonable job: as of two days ago we’d tested 50,000 people, less than only China, South Korea, Italy, the UAE and Russia. Per capita it’s not quite so good — various Nordic countries and Austria and so on jump above us too — but we’re comfortably in the top half of the table. That’s only one metric, though; there are many others. I get the impression that we’re introducing measures at similar sorts of points along our journey to countries such as France.

But the point is that this is not graded on a curve. How well other countries are doing is only relevant insofar as it shames us to do more; comparing ourselves to France or Spain doesn’t change how many people will be affected here. The fact that the USA is screwing up its response worse than we are does not necessarily mean that we are doing OK.

In general, we have a tendency to look at the wrong things. For instance, we look at the number of deaths in the UK versus Italy or Spain, and we see it is less, and we find that reassures us. But with exponential growth, you are less interested in the absolute numbers, and more in the rate of growth. Our World in Data again has a useful way of talking about that: how long has it taken deaths in a given country to double?

In China, under massive lockdown, the number of deaths has stabilised: it has taken 33 days to double, from 1,524 on February 15th to 3,250 on March 19th. In South Korea, with its stringent testing, it’s been 12 days. But in most Western countries, it’s much shorter: three days for the UK, the USA, Spain; one for the Netherlands; four days for France and Italy.

There hasn’t been enough time for Britain’s countermeasures to make a real impact on the death rate yet. But that will be the sign that they are or are not having an impact: if the time it takes for deaths to double goes up, dramatically. If it does, in the next week or so, we can start to have a bit of optimism. If not, we should still be very worried.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.


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