An unfortunate side effect of COVID19 has been ugly political debates over the best way to tackle the pandemic. Often politicians will claim because country X does this, the UK should be doing it as well. I decided it was time to do a proper comparison of the UK with other countries to see what extent the UK is an outlier and whether there are some countries we should be using as templates.
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Where I got the data
Our World in Data (OWID) have produced this fantastic resource for tracking global COVID19 data. There is an interactive chart facility that reproduces many of the charts I show in this post and at the bottom of that chart is a DOWNLOAD option that includes the option of getting the data in a CSV file.
What comparisons have I made?
For ease of visual appearance, each chart compares the UK with 4 other countries. The full list of comparison groups are:-
- Immediate Neighbours – Ireland, France, Belgium & The Netherlands
- Central Europe – Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg
- Scandinavia – Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland
- Eastern Europe – Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary
- Mediterranean – Portugal, Spain, Italy, Malta
- 5 Eyes (or Anglosphere) – USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand
- Far East – Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan
If you would like me to show other comparison groups, please let me know.
In each comparison group, 5 charts are shown comparing Deaths, Cases, Tests, CFR & Positivity. All data is presented per capita with Cases & Tests per thousand population and Deaths per million inhabitants. In all charts I have set the vertical scale to be about twice the UK peak so as to provide a common visual reference.
The following definitions should be noted.
- Tests – these are either number of people tested for COVID19 or number of tests processed for COVID19. Which definition is used varies between countries.
- Cases – these are the number of tests for COVID19 that give a positive result. It is assumed that all countries use the same type of test with the same degree of accuracy.
- Deaths – these are deaths where COVID19 is recorded on the death certificate. In theory all countries are supposed to use the same process but in practice there will be some differences in the way the process is done. These are NOT excess deaths which includes non-COVID19 deaths and which I may include in a later post.
- Positivity – % of Tests resulting in a Case
- Case Fatality Rate (CFR) – % of Cases resulting in Death. Due to low testing at the start of the pandemic, I do not display data for February to April. That does not mean the data for May onwards is immediately OK, just that it’s more likely to be better due to higher testing.
- Vaccinations – these are number of people vaccinated against COVID19. Current data definitions may change since vaccinations only began in December 2020.
Unfortunately there are differences between countries in terms of the definitions they use for the above measures. For this reason, I’ve decided that any nation that is within a factor of 2 of the UK’s figures will be regarded as to all intents & purposes the same as the UK. Those countries that differ from the UK by more than a factor of 2 will be highlighted.
1 – UK v Immediate Neighbours
The charts below compare the UK (bars) with the following 4 countries (lines); Ireland, France, Belgium, The Netherlands.
When looking at the data overall since the start of the pandemic, all 5 countries are essentially the same with any difference a matter of degree rather than magnitude. However, there are differences when one looks at the last 3 months.
- Testing – Up till December, all 5 countries are doing broadly the same amount of testing. Since the start of the year, the UK has accelerated whilst the other 4 nations have stagnated.
- Cases – It is clear all 5 are having worst 2nd waves but are following different timings. Belgium peaked in October, UK & Ireland in January, France & Netherlands in between.
- Deaths – Cumulative deaths are broadly within the same order of magnitude but the UK has had the worst of the last 3 months.
- Positivity – Netherlands stand out which is most probably due to low levels of testing.
- CFR – UK, Belgium & France for the last 3 months is twice that of the Netherlands & Ireland. One must be careful drawing conclusions from such an observation as there can be many reasons for such differences.
- Vaccinations – The UK has vaccinated 4-5 times as many people as the other nations.
2 – UK v Central Europe
The charts below compare the UK (bars) with the following 4 countries (lines); Germany, Sweden, Italy, Spain.
As for Immediate Neighbours, the similarities are more striking than the differences. Saying that, some differences are worth pointing out.
- Testing – In the beginning, Germany was well ahead of other countries but now Switzerland & Germany are well behind the other nations.
- Cases – Lowest in Germany which may be connected with lower testing. Other 4 nations broadly the same but the UK’s peak was later than the others.
- Deaths – Cumulative deaths are highest in UK and lowest in Germany. Over the last 3 months, nations are broadly similar though the UK is still the highest.
- Positivity – Over last 3 months, positivity has been highly variable but is directly related to the volume of testing i.e. those didn’t little testing have higher figures and vice versa.
- CFR – Over last 3 months, CFRs have been broadly the same across all nations with Germany highest.
- Vaccinations – The UK has vaccinated 4-5 times as many people as the other nations.
Germany is the most highlighted nation of this group but its CFR in the last few months points to a potential undercount of cases due to low levels of testing.
3 – UK v Scandinavia
The charts below compare the UK (bars) with the following 4 countries (lines); Denmark, Norway, Sweden & Iceland. I realise that some people would replace Iceland with Finland but for me, Finland is better compared with the 3 Baltic states.
As will be seen, for the most Norway & Iceland behave differently to Sweden & Denmark.
- Testing – Denmark has done double what the UK has done. The other 3 nations were broadly tracking the UK but have tailed off since Christmas.
- Cases – Denmark & Sweden have broadly tracked the UK whilst Norway & Iceland are much lower.
- Deaths – Sweden is broadly similar to the UK whilst the other 3 nations are notably lower.
- Positivity – Sweden is much higher than the UK whilst the other 3 nations are notably lower.
- CFR – The UK is over twice that of other nations
- Vaccinations – The UK has vaccinated 3-4 times the number of people as the other nations.
What makes this an interesting comparison for the UK is that many in the UK would stereotype Scandinavians as being in better health than the UK which might explain the lower deaths rates. OWID provide a number of health related statistics for each nations and what is surprising when one looks at these numbers is that this is not necessarily the case. The UK has the highest rates of smoking but the lowest rates of Diabetes.
For me the most notable difference between the UK and these 4 nations is the population density of the UK.
4 – UK v Eastern Europe
The charts below compare the UK (bars) with the following 4 countries (lines); Poland, Czechia, Slovakia & Hungary. They are also known as the Visigrad 4.
The differences between the UK and these 4 countries are now less than they were.
- Testing – Slovakia has rapidly expanded its testing and now exceeds the UK.
- Cases – All 4 escaped the 1st wave but have had a bad second wave and have now caught up with the UK with Czechia nearly twice as bad.
- Deaths – Very few in the 1st wave but all bar Poland worse than the UK in the 2nd wave.
- Positivity – Through the roof in the last 3 months with exception of Slovakia which is due to differential levels of testing.
- CFR – Czechia lower than the UK whilst Poland, Hungary & Slovakia are worse.
- Vaccinations – The UK has vaccinated 3-4 times as many people.
All in all, the Visigrad group suggest that nations who largely escaped the 1st wave are likely to have a bad 2nd wave whilst nations with a bad 1st wave have a better 2nd wave. That would point to the remorseless nature of this disease, you can only dodge for so long and unless you can shut yourself off like New Zealand, until vaccinations can be rolled out, governments will face uneviable choices till then.
5 – UK v Mediterranean (West)
The charts below compare the UK (bars) with the following 4 countries (lines); Portugal, Spain, Italy & Malta. Yes I know Portugal is technically not in the Mediterranean but it had to go somewhere!
There is a broad degree of similarity between these nations.
- Testing – Malta is keeping pace with the UK whilst the other 3 are doing about half the numbers.
- Cases – All are broadly similar with the UK.
- Deaths – Malta is the lowest with the others broadly similar with the UK.
- Positivity – Portugal highest with Malta similar to the UK.
- CFR – All are broadly similar to the UK
- Vaccinations – The UK has vaccinated 4 times as many people as Italy, Spain & Portugal with Malta at half of the UK’s level.
6 – UK v Anglosphere (5 Eyes)
The charts below compare the UK (bars) with the following 4 countries (lines); USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. Together these 5 countries have what is known as the 5 Eyes pact for sharing intelligence material.
There are clear differences between North America and Oceania.
- Testing – UK & USA are doing twice as many tests. Canada & Oceania are not increasing test levels.
- Cases – The big difference is that the USA did not have a summer dip and cases remain high.
- Deaths – Cumulatively, the UK & USA are broadly similar, Oceania has seen very little and Canada is in between.
- Positivity – There are considerable differences with the USA & Canada higher than the UK and Oceania near zero.
- CFR – Australia had a big spike in the summer for reasons that are not clear and their CFR is clearly distorted. Canada, UK & USA are very similar for the last 3 months.
- Vaccinations – USA is similar to the UK and are well ahead of the other nations.
New Zealand followed by Australia stand out here but whether they are good models for the UK is unclear. The vast differences in population density and most of all their geographical isolation makes it difficult to decide if they are useful role models. They are also in the Southern hemisphere as well so their seasons are the other way around.
7 – UK v Far East
The charts below compare the UK (bars) with the following 4 countries (lines); Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.
The differences between the UK and these 4 countries is dramatic.
- Testing – Singapore is same as the UK but the other 3 countries are doing very little.
- Cases – Singapore had a similar 1st wave to the UK whilst the other 3 countries had almost no cases.
- Deaths – There have been no COVID19 deaths in the Far East, at least based on what the eye can see.
- Positivity – Japan is similar to the UK over the last 3 months though they are doing much fewer tests. South Korea now has an outbreak.
- CFR – South Korea & Japan are similar to the UK over last 3 months whilst Singapore & Taiwan are near zero.
- Vaccinations – With the exception of Singapore, these have yet to commence in the Far East.
Frankly if it wasn’t for the Singapore data, I would be very suspicious of the data for the other 3 countries. Saying that, although Singapore matches the UK for testing and cases the complete lack of deaths is startling. The OWID data set you can download also includes a number of economic, health and demographic indicators for the countries and one reason I chose these 4 countries rather than say Vietnam or China, is that these 4 are very similar to the UK especially in age structure and wealth. We know that age is a major predictor of death risk and yet the death rate is so much lower here.
Is this because people in these countries are simply less likely to catch COVID19? This might be one reason since the CFR in Japan and South Korea are similar to the UK whilst Singapore & Taiwan are very close to zero. But I note that testing is so much lower than the UK which surprises me. Thus it could be that people are dying of COVID19 but without testing it hasn’t been possible to confirm the cause hence why the number of deaths are so low. I find that hard to believe.
So overall, it does appear that the Far East have something to offer the UK but some of the data surprises me. I am particularly surprised at the low level of testing, Singapore excepted, and I note OWID make a prominent point of making on their website that testing is one of the keys to managing the pandemic. What I see in the Far East doesn’t conform with that.
– More posts about COVID19 –
- A very useful guidance to interpreting statistics of COVID19 published by the Royal Statistical Society.
- My collection of links to all kinds of material related to the statistics of COVID19, epidemiological modelling and testing.
- How large a sample is needed in order to decide whether COVID19 restrictions can be lifted? A lot, lot less than you think!
- Latest trends in COVID19 deaths in England using 6 time series
- How many excess deaths will there be as of 19th June? This is my estimate of excess deaths using a statistical model.
- Latest trends in COVID19 cases in England
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