The UK reached a grim milestone in its battle with coronavirus on Tuesday, as the death toll surpassed 50,000 for the first time, according to official figures.
The tally comes 10 weeks after the nation went into lockdown and confirms Britain’s status as one of the world’s worst-hit countries by a pandemic that has claimed about 375,000 lives globally.
The UK death toll is higher than the worst affected countries in Europe: Italy, France and Spain, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, and the number of people killed by coronavirus in the UK since it emerged in China in January is only currently surpassed by America.
The number of deaths registered in England and Wales with confirmed or suspected Covid-19 reached 44,401 by 22 May according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), but when more recent figures from statistics authorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland and the NHS are added in, the tally hits 50,032.
It brings into view a prediction in April by disease analysts in the US that the UK could suffer 66,000 deaths by early August.
On 17 March, early in the pandemic, the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, had said that keeping the death toll below 20,000 would be “a good outcome in terms of where we hope to get to with this outbreak”. That 20,000 milestone was reached in April.
Since the start of the epidemic, almost 15,000 people are known to have died in care homes. Hospitals, while not overwhelmed, have faced over two months of severe pressure, with staff handling tens of thousands of fatalities while most non-urgent treatment was suspended.
The 50,000 death milestone comes as Boris Johnson continues to loosen lockdown restrictions and will increase scrutiny of the government’s response to the pandemic, which has been questioned on several fronts.
The lockdown, introduced on 23 March, was seen by many as coming too late; the government’s former chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, said that “every day cost lives”.
Medics and care workers faced weeks of shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) required to limit the spread of infection.
An early plan to contain the virus with mass testing and tracing was ended on 12 March and the health secretary, Matt Hancock, only promised to increase testing capacity to 100,000 a day by the end of April.
Black and minority ethnic (BAME) people have been disproportionately affected and have been two to three times more likely to die from Covid-19 than the general population, according to a UCL study.
While the figures confirm the death rate is continuing to fall and reached its lowest level in the last seven weeks, overall mortality in England and Wales so far this year has been running at 22% above the five-year average.
April, when the virus peaked, was particularly bad and separate ONS figures, also published on Tuesday, showed the provisional number of deaths registered in England and Wales in that month was 88,153 – double the number in 2019 and an increase of 38,430 deaths in comparison with the previous month.
The north-east and east of England are the areas where the disease is still having the greatest impact, compared with normal years, with death tolls 30% and 40% above the five-year average respectively up to 22 May, according to the ONS figures.
Between 23 May and 29 May, the period after the main ONS data was gathered, care homes in England and Wales notified their regulators of 578 deaths related to Covid-19. Scotland is set to publish more up-to-date death toll figures on Wednesday.
Scotland has recorded 3,779 deaths in all settings where coronavirus was mentioned on the death certificate, according to statistics published last week by National Records of Scotland. The virus has hit 62% of care homes in Scotland and by 26 May, 18 health and social care workers had died from the virus, most of them working in care homes. There were also 716 Covid-related deaths in all settings in Northern Ireland in 2020 up to 22 May, according to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency.
More up-to-date daily figures about deaths in hospitals in England show there were 931 confirmed Covid-19 deaths from 23 May up to and including 1 June, 105 further deaths in Scotland to date, 78 in Wales and 22 in Northern Ireland.
Deaths involving Covid-19 as a proportion of all deaths in care homes fell to 32.5%, but the figures showed the virus continues to have a hold in care settings.
The number of deaths in care homes was 1,289 higher than the five-year average, while in hospitals the number of deaths was 24 fewer than the five-year average.
By 22 May, UK care homes had reported 14,868 deaths from suspected or confirmed Covid-19. The UK’s biggest care home operator, HC-One, is nearing a toll of 1,000 deaths in its facilities.
“We are supporting the families of all of those residents who have been affected and those who have lost their lives, and our thoughts and condolences are with all those who have lost loved ones,” it said in a statement.
The Care Quality Commission published separate data showing the impact of the virus on people with learning disabilities living in care or receiving care support. It showed a 134% increase in the number of deaths over the year with 386 deaths of people with a learning disability, some of whom may also be autistic, being notified. For the same period last year, 165 people died who were receiving care from services which provide support for people with a learning disability and/or autism.
Dr Rhidian Hughes, the chief executive of the Voluntary Organisations Disability Group, said: “These findings are a sad and stark reminder to us all of the impact that coronavirus is having on people with a learning disability and autism. The figures are a wake-up call for government to put right its testing programme that is currently neglecting disabled people of working age who use care services.”