These numbers about Covid-19 deaths in the UK and Italy are broadly accurate

24th Mar 2020

Claim

The total number of deaths from Covid-19 in Italy rose from 233 to 4,032 over about two weeks.

Conclusion

Correct. As reported by the Italian government, the number of deaths from Covid-19 rose from 233 on 7 March to 4,032 on 20 March.

 

The total number of deaths from Covid-19 in the UK is now at 233, the same number of deaths reported in Italy about two weeks ago.

 

Correct. On 21 March, Public Health England reported a total of 233 deaths in the UK from Covid-19. However, not enough is known to say whether the number of deaths will grow at the same rate in the UK as in Italy.

Claim 1 of 2

An image comparing the number of deaths from Covid-19 (the infection caused by the new coronavirus) in Italy with the UK has been shared around 60,000 times on Facebook. It includes the message, “Please STAY AT HOME”. 

The post claims that the total number of deaths in Italy rose from 233 to 4,032 within two weeks, and there are currently 233 deaths from Covid-19 in the UK. 

This is correct. 

The cumulative number of deaths from Covid-19 reported by the Department of Civil Protection in Italy rose from 233 on 7 March to 4,032 on 20 March (the day before the Facebook post was published). On 21 March, Public Health England (PHE) reported that there had been 233 deaths in total from Covid-19. (PHE does not provide a public record of deaths by day, but there are unofficial collections of this data gathered from PHE’s public releases.)

The post also claims that there were 647 deaths in Italy in the last 24 hours. This is slightly higher than the official statistics from Italy, which reported 627 additional deaths between 19 and 20 March. 

Italy, to date, has had the highest number of deaths from Covid-19 

On 19 March, Italy’s death count from Covid-19 surpassed China’s, making it the country with the highest number of deaths.

As the pandemic is ongoing, it is hard to know exactly why Italy has been affected so badly by the new coronavirus (or whether other countries will ultimately surpass Italy’s death count).

However, Italy’s ageing population, as well as its culture of connectedness between generations, have been proposed as reasons for such a high number of deaths.

Italy has a greater percentage of over 65s in its population than any other country in Europe, according to data published by the UN. Older adults and those with underlying health conditions “are at higher risk of getting very sick from this illness”

Is the UK on track to have the same high number of deaths as Italy?

The overall message of the Facebook post is that the UK will end up with a situation like Italy if the UK public does not stay at home and stop the spread of the virus.

In a speech on 21 March, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that “the Italian death toll is already in the thousands and climbing. Unless we act together, unless we make the heroic and collective national effort to slow the spread—then it is all too likely that our own NHS will be similarly overwhelmed”.

A graph of the total number of deaths in Italy and the UK, with the UK on a two-week delay, shows that the two countries have been on a roughly similar trajectory since just before they recorded their first deaths.Uk vs. Italy Covid-19 deaths

However, several experts, including Professor David Spiegelhalter from Cambridge University’s Statistical Laboratory (quoted in a Guardian article discussing the same issue), have emphasised the difficulty in drawing accurate conclusions about Covid-19 deaths in the UK based on what is known in other countries. Differences in the number of people who are tested for the new coronavirus and how deaths are recorded limits the comparability of published data across countries.

Variation in health systems and demographics of populations, such as age structure, rates of underlying illnesses and health behaviours, may contribute to differences in the number of deaths. 

Policy on social isolation and the public response to it will also play a role in the spread of the virus and the resulting number of deaths. Professor Spiegelhalter notes this importance: “the UK’s peak may not be so severe if the UK’s response to the outbreak has been effective”, but also warns that “the answer to that is not yet clear.”

As stated by Dr James Gill, Honorary Clinical Lecturer at Warwick Medical School, “what we must ensure though is that countries learn from and adapt with one another when effective strategies are demonstrated.”