BBC asks: “Covid: the UK is Europe’s virus hotspot – does it matter?”

We appear to be living in strange times, where Covid-19 is running rife in the UK, yet the government and most of the press appear to have moved on from the pandemic!

So I was initially pleased to see that the BBC was highlighting the fact that we are the ‘virus hotspot’ of Europe. Then, I was really frustrated with the tone of the article.

Just the title felt dismissive, with a more rhetorical feel to it rather than asking a genuine question. The carefree image of young people, indoors, unmasked, sitting close together, laughing and chatting, also gave a ‘no worries, life is all back to normal’ impression. Don’t get me wrong, we all want to be ‘back to normal’, but it seems indicative of what’s going wrong in the UK at the moment.

The article starts by saying “With the news dominated by other issues, it has gone almost unnoticed that the UK now has one of the highest rates of Covid infection in Europe”, as if this has come out of nowhere. Surely the BBC (and other media) could and should have been keeping an eye on this stuff?

Now our cases aren’t just a little bit higher, they are five times as high as our most comparable counterparts. And before anyone asks, no it isn’t because we are testing more! We are doing more tests because we have so many more cases, but we are finding a similar proportion of positive cases as in France, Spain and Germany, making the numbers legitimately comparable.

The article goes on to explain why our case numbers may be so much higher; for example, that we removed all restrictions in July, while the rest of Europe have either only just done that (Denmark and Norway), or they have kept some restrictions in place, such as mask-wearing, social distancing, limits on large gatherings, and vaccine passports (France, Spain, Germany).

It also explains that many countries have overtaken the UK on the vaccine roll-out, with greater proportions of their population now being vaccinated. The article ends with “So it is hardly surprising a virus that thrives on human contact has taken off in the UK compared with the rest of Europe”, which feels like a verbal shrug of the shoulders, as if we couldn’t have done anything else.

The article mentions our lack of hospital capacity to cope with the 700 current daily hospital admissions for Covid-19. Our lack of capacity is really highlighted when you look at the number of hospital beds per 1000 of the population in OECD countries. We languish near the bottom with a miserly 2.5 beds compared with France’s 5.9 or Germany’s 8.0, for example.

So with infection levels five times higher than our European neighbours, and far fewer hospital beds available, not to mention the 93,000 current nursing and other vacancies across the NHS (up 23 per cent from March THIS YEAR), it doesn’t feel a great place to be, as we head into winter.

The BBC article shows us that the gap between our daily deaths and those on the continent is not as big as it is for daily cases. Which is great, but we still have twice as many people dying per head of population as they do in Germany, France and Spain. I don’t know about anyone else, but that’s not OK with me!

The fact that 100 or more people per day are currently dying from Covid in the UK, was again made light of by comparing it with the number of people who die per day of flu in a bad flu season. Dismissing concerns about the number of Covid deaths by comparing it with a totally different disease, during a bad period for that disease, is not as reassuring as it may initially seem. We haven’t entered the winter virus season yet, and we have been seeing between 100 and 140 daily Covid-19 deaths per day since mid-August. There has been a slight fall in the last two weeks, but deaths appear to be rising again. Given that we do not appear to be doing anything at all to reduce this Covid-related death toll, it’s not really a surprise that we seem stuck at this sort of level.

But remember that for each death, partners, siblings, parents and children are left behind. Every day, thousands of people are losing a loved one to Covid-19, because there are still a hundred and more deaths daily – they aren’t just statistics. And that’s happening to twice as many people in the UK as it is to those in Europe, as a direct result of government choices.

The BBC report goes on to explain that this winter may well be a bad one for other viruses such as flu and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus, a disease mainly affecting babies and young children). They were almost non-existent last year, thanks to all the Covid-19 mitigations, meaning current immunity levels to them may be lower. So having suggested 100 Covid deaths ‘wasn’t that bad’ because we have a higher number of flu deaths in a bad flu season, we now find we are possibly heading into a bad flu season too…

It may also be time to suggest that mask-wearing was really rather good at decreasing the flu death toll, and that maybe we can all do a bit more to limit flu deaths alongside the Covid-19 ones too?

All in all, I’d say that yes, it really does matter that we are the Covid-19 hotspot of Europe: both in terms of seeing what our neighbours are managing to achieve through the choices their governments have taken, but also in highlighting that we are not at some ‘inevitable’ level of Covid that we should simply accept as normal.

We are heading into winter with five times as many Covid-19 cases, twice as many Covid-19 deaths, and far fewer hospital beds (and staff) than France, Germany or Spain.

We should be demanding better of our government, who appear to have washed their hands of Covid, seemingly aided and abetted by our press. Covid-19 is far from over. There is so much we can learn from our neighbours about living a ‘normal’ life while still protecting the population from a deadly pandemic.