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
- 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
- Eastern Europe – Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary
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 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.
- 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.
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 broadly the same amount of testing and have been increasing testing at a similar rate.
- Cases – It is clear all 5 are having worst 2nd waves. Ireland are the lowest whilst Belgium are the highest.
- Deaths – Cumulative deaths differ somewhat with Belgium 3.5 times that of Ireland but I can’t rule out national differences in methods of recording deaths.
- Positivity – UK & Ireland notably lower than France, Belgium & Netherlands for the last 3 months.
- 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 – Only the UK has begun to vaccinate its citizens. The other 4 countries began vaccinating in January.
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 70% more tests compared to other countries now though in the beginning, Germany was well ahead of other countries.
- Cases – Sweden & Germany are mostly tracking the UK. Spain & Italy have fallen in December but this might be due to less reporting over Christmas.
- Deaths – Cumulative deaths in Germany are 40% of that seen in the other 4 nations which are broadly similar.
- Positivity – Over last 3 months, positivity has been higher on the continent than in the UK.
- CFR – Sweden’s is half that of the other 4 countries. One must be careful drawing conclusions from such an observation as there can be many reasons for such differences.
Up to now, Germany had been notably better than any other country in Europe. However, December saw a deterioration and the higher level of positivity means this may not be maintained.
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 – UK & USA are doing twice as many tests and continue to increase the number of 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 – The UK had the worst 1st wave but was then overtaken by the USA. Cumulatively, the UK & USA are broadly similar, Oceania has seen very little and Canada is in between.
- Positivity – There are considerable differences with the UK & Canada similar in the last 3 months, USA higher 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 & Canada have commenced vaccinations but are behind the UK.
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. Brazil’s data has disappeared.
- Cases – Over the summer, cases peaked and then fell. Brazil reversed in December and is now increasing again.
- Deaths – Cumulatively all 5 nations are broadly similar.
- Positivity – Due to the low number of tests, South America is a lot higher than the UK
- CFR – Positivity is twice that of the UK in Argentina, Ecuador & Peru in the last 3 months.
- Vaccinations – Argentina is the only nation to have commenced vaccinations.
One of the things we want to know about COVID19 is whether it is worse in the winter. South America showed it was hence the 2nd wave in Europe was not a surprise.
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 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 – 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.
6 – 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 is dramatic.
- Testing – All 4 are doing between 2 & 3 times fewer tests than the UK.
- Cases – All 4 escaped the 1st wave but are similar to the UK in the 2nd wave with Czechia twice as high.
- Deaths – Very few in the 1st wave but all bar Slovakia worse than the UK in the 2nd wave.
- Positivity – Through the roof in the last 3 months which is partly due to lower testing. This suggests further deaths to come.
- CFR – Slovakia and Czechia are similar to the UK whilst Poland and Hungary are worse.
- Vaccinations – Poland and Hungary have started vaccinations but at a much lower level than the UK.
Given that CFRs are similar to the UK and Positivity is so much higher that points to more deaths yet to come in 2021. It would not surprise me if the overall level of deaths came to match the UK in Poland, Czechia and Hungary. If that happens, then this would suggest that nations who largely escaped the 1st wave will have a very 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 a vaccination program can be rolled out, governments will face uneviable choices till then.
– 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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