The latest UK government strategy to slow the coronavirus epidemic could lead to between 35,000 and 70,000 excess deaths over the next year, according to an instant analysis by scientists from University College London, the University of Cambridge and Health Data Research UK.

The team of clinicians, statisticians and epidemiologists says the UK measures do not go far enough in stopping the spread of the disease or identifying the most vulnerable high-risk groups. The government should “do more in the pursuit of suppressing the epidemic whether through enforced lockdowns or enforced social distancing rather than voluntary measures”, they add. 

The study — a rapid analysis not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal — estimates the excess number of deaths caused by Covid-19 in relation to underlying medical conditions and age, using NHS health records from 3.8m adults in England. 

Dr Amitava Banerjee of UCL, the lead author, said: “The UK government is currently following a partial suppression policy of population-wide social distancing, combined with home isolation of cases, as well as school and university closures, but this is currently not [mandatory]. 

“Our study indicates that the government should implement more stringent suppression at population level to avoid not just immediate deaths but also long-term excess deaths,” he said. 

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The research adjusts the deaths likely to be caused directly by the epidemic, taking account of the fact that some would have died anyway from other causes. So far almost all Covid-19 deaths in the UK have occurred in people who were either elderly or suffering from underlying disease. 

Even so, the study comes up with what the authors regard as an unacceptably high number of excess deaths for the current government policy: 35,000 to 70,000.

The researchers appealed to the NHS to make more data available for studies like theirs. Harry Hemingway, UCL professor of clinical epidemiology, said: “Legislation is urgently needed to free up nationwide NHS data so that clinicians and services can rapidly learn ways to tackle the consequences of the epidemic, both in those with and those without the virus.

“The current regulatory and legislative environment around NHS data hampers the public health emergency response to the Covid-19 pandemic.”

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