Coronavirus: 60,000 to die in UK this month, highest in Europe, says study

A man in the UK reads a newspaper with a frontpage about Prime Minister Boris Johnson being in hospital for coronavirus. (AP)

More than 60,000 people could die of coronavirus in the UK by the end of April, the highest projected number in Europe, according to a new report by the US-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).

On Tuesday, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan warned that the country is currently about a week from reaching a peak in the number of cases as a nationwide lockdown remains in place. The UK has currently recorded 6,159 deaths from coronavirus, and government officials are warning that based on available figures, hospitals should prepare for an increase in cases in the next few weeks.

But the latest numbers from the IHME suggest the UK will be far worse hit than the government has predicted – with the number of deaths increasing more than tenfold to 66,314 by August 4, with the majority occurring this month.

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According to the IHME projections, coronavirus deaths in the UK are set to rise steeply in mid-April, peaking at nearly 3,000 deaths a day on April 17. The data shows a rapid increase in deaths through April, with around 60,000 people dead by May 1. The projected death rate then slows and stabilizes to less than 10 deaths per day by late May, with a total of 66,314 deaths by early August.

This would make the UK’s death toll the highest in Europe by far compared to predictions for other countries, including Italy, which currently has the highest death toll in the world at 17,127. IHME estimates coronavirus could kill 20,300 in Italy, 19,209 in Spain, and 15,058 in France.

The IHME numbers suggest that the UK’s death toll would be even higher than that of the US – though other scientists and experts dispute this.

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Lack of beds, ventilators

The IHME study also forecasts a catastrophic shortage of beds compared to the dramatic increase in patients.

The UK currently has 17,765 hospital beds available, but will need a further 85,029 to meet the predicted demand of 102,794, says the study.

It will also need 23,745 extra intensive care unit beds on top of the measly 799 it currently has available.

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The UK’s public National Health Service (NHS) was already under strain due to underfunding before the outbreak of the coronavirus. Now, it has been forced to scramble to prepare for an influx of patients.

On 27 March, the head of the NHS in England, Sir Simon Stevens, said in his daily briefing, “We have reconfigured hospital services so that 33,000 hospital beds are available to treat further coronavrius patients.”

To free up extra space, the NHS has also canceled all routine operations, such as hip and knee replacements, for three months from April 15.

The government is also in the process of setting up new hospitals, including transforming London’s ExCeL Centre from a conference hall to a hospital. The new hospital, named Nightingale Hospital, in reference to the historical British nurse Florence Nightingale, will eventually hold 4,000 patients. Other hospitals are also planned in British cities including Manchester, Cardiff, and Birmingham.

However, even with the new capacity, the government would still be short of beds – assuming IHME’s predictions are correct.

The IHME study also suggested that the UK would need to obtain more than 20,000 more ventilators, which are crucial to helping coronavirus patients breathe but have become a fought over commodity globally.

Read more: Coronavirus: Inside the global war for ventilators

Methodology and findings disputed

IHME’s findings have been disputed by other experts and scientists, as well as the UK government.

IHME made its projections based on three criteria:
• The date physical distancing measures were put into place,
• The example of how the virus has unfolded in other countries including Italy and Spain,
• Events in the UK so far.

The high numbers can therefore partially be explained by the fact that the UK put physical distancing measures into place later than other countries. They also take into account the relatively steep increase in deaths in the first stages of the outbreak in the UK, before the country had been in lockdown.

Read more: The UK response to coronavirus: ‘Herd immunity’ and its risks explained

However, the death estimates produced by the IHME are only averages within a vast range of possibilities – 66,314 is the average between 14,572 and 219,211 deaths – highlighting the lack of certainty of modeling future trends.

Other scientists and experts, including those used by the UK government, have also disagreed with the study.

Theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder tweeted in response to the Guardian article quoting the IHME study saying “I repeat: Do not trust predictions of any scientific model without quantified uncertainties. It means you have no idea how well they understand their model and the data.”

Imperial College London’s Professor Neil Ferguson criticized the study for misrepresenting the current situation in the UK and said its predictions were unreliable.

“This model does not match the current UK situation,” Ferguson was quoted as saying in the Guardian, adding that the IHME’s numbers for current bed use and deaths in the NHS were at least twice as high as the reality.

“Basically, their healthcare demand model is wrong, at least for the UK,” he added.

Ferguson predicted this week that the number of deaths in the UK would be in between 7,000 and 20,000.

“We don’t have the ability right now to measure how many people have been infected, that will come with antibody tests, and so we are making statistical estimates of that and those are subject to a certain degree of uncertainty,” Ferguson said on the BBC’s Andrew Marr program.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:54 - GMT 06:54
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