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. I conclude Germany is probably the most relevant option.
I plan to update this post every month or more frequently if it is topical. You can follow me on Twitter to be told when I have made updates.
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
- Major Continental Destinations – Germany, Sweden, Italy, Spain
- 5 Eyes (or Anglosphere) – USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand
- South America – Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador
- 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, 3 charts are shown comparing Deaths, Cases & Tests. 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 50% above 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.
1 – UK v Immediate Neighbours
The charts below compare the UK (bars) with the following 4 countries (lines); Ireland, France, Belgium, The Netherlands.
What strikes me about these charts is that all 5 countries are essentially the same with any difference a matter of degree rather than magnitude.
- Testing – All 5 countries are doing the same amount of testing and have been increasing testing at a similar rate. Dutch data for October appears to be missing.
- Cases – The number of positive tests differs between Spring & Autumn e.g. Ireland was above the UK in the Spring but is now below the UK, France is the other way around. It is clear all 5 are having worst 2nd waves .
- Deaths – Cumulative deaths differ somewhat with Belgium 3 times that of Ireland but I can’t rule out national differences in methods of recording deaths.
I note the UK’s Case Fatality Rate (Deaths per Positive Test) is twice that of the Netherlands & Belgium. One must be careful drawing conclusions from such an observation as there can be many reasons for such differences.
2 – UK v Major Continental Destinations
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 – The UK is doing twice the number of tests as other countries now though in the beginning, Germany was well ahead of other countries.
- Cases – Spain stands out for the high number of cases in the summer. Germany was the lowest in both the 1st and 2nd waves.
- Deaths – Cumulative deaths in Germany are only 20% of that seen in the other 4 nations which are very similar. Even with lower number of cases, its case fatality ratio is still half that of the other 4 nations.
Germany is standing out here with numbers roughly 2 to 5 less severe than other European countries. They haven’t escaped a second wave but they do seem to be faring best.
3 – 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 – All 5 countries are broadly the same here with the USA doing twice as many tests as New Zealand.
- Cases – The big difference is that the USA did not have a summer dip and cases remain high. There are considerable differences in positivity (cases divided by tests) with the USA at a cumulative 6%, Oceania near zero and the UK & Canada in between.
- Deaths – The UK had the worst 1st wave but was then overtaken by the USA. Cumulatively, the UK & USA are similar, Oceania has seen very little and Canada is in between.
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.
4 – UK v South America
The charts below compare the UK (bars) with the following 4 countries (lines); Brazil, Argentina, Peru & Ecuador.
The obvious difference between the UK and these countries is they are in the Southern hemisphere so the seasonal differences may explain some of the observed differences here.
- Testing – All 4 South American countries are doing little or no testing.
- Cases – Brazil & Peru increased over the summer but now appear to be on a downward trend. Ecuador is flat whilst Argentina is still increasing.
- Deaths – Cumulatively the UK, Brazil, Argentina & Ecuador have very similar death rates (though the timing is different) whilst Peru is 50% higher.
One of the things we want to know about COVID19 is whether it is worse in the winter. South America suggests it might be in which case Europe has yet to reach its low point.
5 – 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 matches 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.
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 case fatality ratios in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea are roughly 1/3 of the UK whilst Singapore is a highly improbable 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