Don’t ‘bash’ Britain for having a bigger Covid outbreak than Europe because continent is lagging behind in testing, top Oxford expert says
- Professor Sir Andrew Pollard warned against comparing UK infections to Europe
- He said the country is carrying out up to ten times more swabs than neighbours
- But Britain still has a higher Covid hospitalisation and death rate
Professor Sir Andrew Pollard said it was not helpful to compare the UK’s infection rate to other countries
It is unfair to ‘bash’ Britain over its large Covid outbreak compared to Europe because it is testing up to ten times more people, an Oxford expert has said.
Official figures show the UK currently has the highest infection rate on the continent, except for a few countries in eastern Europe.
But it is carrying out the second highest number of swabs for the virus. Only Austria is carrying out more tests per 1,000 people.
Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, who helped design the AstraZeneca vaccine, warned today it was not helpful to compare Britain’s Covid infection rate to other countries.
He told a Parliamentary committee: ‘I’m not trying to deny that there’s not plenty of transmission, because there is, but it’s the comparisons that are problematic.
‘If you look across Western Europe, we have about 10 times more tests done each day than some other countries, this is per head of population. So we really have to always adjust by looking at the data.’
He pointed to hospitalisations and deaths because these were less impacted by the differences in testing — but Britain is also outpacing its neighbours on these metrics.
Europeans have been looking over at the UK with concern, trying to fathom why the ‘sick man of Europe’ has such a high infection rate.
But there are early signs other countries are catching up, with Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium all starting to see cases soar.
This graph shows the proportion of people testing positive for the virus per million people in Europe plus the US. The UK has the continent’s highest infection rate except for a few countries in eastern Europe
But Britain is also carrying out the second highest number of Covid tests per 1,000 people on the continent, with only Austria undertaking more swabs
Professor Pollard said it was better to look at hospitalisations. But these also show Britain has a higher rate compared to other European countries
And figures for Covid deaths show the UK has a higher number per million people compared to its European neighbours
The UK has a similar vaccination rate to European countries, although some in western Europe have steamed ahead after approving vaccines for under-18s earlier than Britain
Professor Pollard told the Science and Technology committee in the Commons today: ‘We do have a lot of transmission at the moment, but it’s not right to say that those rates are really telling us something that we can compare internationally.’
He added: ‘A lot of our policy decisions should be very much focused on what we think is right for this country, not by saying other countries have much less (cases), because it’s very difficult to make those assessments.
Britain didn’t focus enough on airborne Covid transmission at the beginning of the pandemic, a Government adviser today admitted.
Professor Andrew Curran, chief scientific adviser for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) — which issues the Government’s official workplace guidance, told MPs Covid advice may have overemphasised surface cleanliness, instead of the need for proper ventilation.
Speaking to the Science and Technology Committee, he said the recommendations have shifted as experts learn more about the virus.
Top scientists initially feared the coronavirus was spread mainly via surfaces such as door handles, post boxes and desks at the start of the crisis last year.
It led to Government-issued guidance to businesses which instructed them to spend thousands of pounds on cleaning products to wipe down PCs and door handles for when employees returned to the workplace.
But research has since shown the risk of transmission from touching contaminated surfaces is low, nailing aerosol droplets as the main way the virus transmits between people.
Professor Curran today said Britain should have focused more on stopping airborne transmission at work.
He added that thousands of offices which have been spot-checked by the HSE have not been following all of the agency’s guidance, which includes advice on cleaning, hygiene and ventilation.
‘If you make the adjustment of cases in relation to the rates of testing, and look at test positivity, currently Germany has the highest test positivity rate in Europe.
‘So I think when we look at these data it’s really important not to sort of bash the UK with a very high case rate, because actually it’s partly related to very high testing.’
Figures from OurWorldInData — which has been tracking the outbreak since March last year — show Britain still has a higher Covid hospitalisation and death rate than its big European neighbours.
The UK’s hospitalisation rate was 92.8 per million people in the week to October 17, the latest available. But in France it was 18.2 and in Spain it was 4.56.
Data for Germany only goes up to the week ending October 10, when it had an admission rate of 21.7.
In terms of Covid deaths, the data website says the UK is currently recording 1.99 deaths involving the virus a day per million people.
For comparison, in Germany it is 0.73, while in France and Spain it is as low as 0.48 and 0.47 respectively.
Spain and France have a higher proportion of their population double-vaccinated than the UK, at 79 per cent and 67 per cent respectively, while Germany has a similar level to the country, around 66 per cent.
Professor Pollard said hospital admissions in the UK were now a ‘quite a different story from last year’, with the vast majority of people going in having shorter hospital stays and much milder disease.
He said many of these were people with underlying health conditions that were ‘destabilised by having a relatively mild Covid infection’.
Physicians see this every winter with other viruses, Sir Andrew said, adding ‘that people who are frail with various health conditions will be tipped over the edge as a result of those viral infections and Covid is doing that as well’.
He warned the NHS was ‘incredibly fragile’ but ‘that fragility is only contributed a small amount by Covid and so vaccinating is not going to suddenly make the NHS not be on its knees, where it is at the moment’.
The eminent scientist said the pandemic has had a major impact on waiting lists and while vaccines for the unvaccinated would make a big difference for intensive care, ‘this still doesn’t change the overall needle on where we are with a very stressed NHS’.
Sir Andrew said ensuring less transmission would cut intensive care admissions ‘but in the end the unvaccinated will meet the virus… it just might not be today, it might be next year’.
Turning to the impact of testing in schools on high case numbers, he said: ‘I think when you look in the community, for example, we see these very high rates of transmission, but in some parts of the country the vast majority of those come from very effective testing in schools, and so we’re picking up a lot of very mild infections.
‘We know from all the previous studies done that children contribute a relatively small amount to adult transmission, so those very high numbers in some regions… is reflecting something which is transmission amongst children — much less importance than transmission to older adults.’
Asked if people are looking at the ‘wrong thing’ by focusing on cases, Sir Andrew said that even with deaths, they are recorded as being within 28 days of a positive Covid result.
When transmission is high, lots of people will have died from other causes, he said.
He said the raw data was ‘quite misleading’ though that ‘doesn’t mean there isn’t Covid transmission and people get hospitalised with it’.
Downing Street said it was ‘too early’ to draw conclusions from the latest figures which suggest a potential levelling off of coronavirus cases.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: ‘It’s always encouraging when you see reductions like that and including, I believe, a levelling off of admissions.
‘But it’s too early to draw full conclusions from the case rates and we would continue to urge the public to abide by the guidance as set out and those eligible to get booster doses.
‘Prevalence remains relatively high even if it has dropped off to a certain extent.
‘There isn’t anything in the statistics currently to suggest a move to Plan B but it is too early to draw conclusions from the recent few days’ statistics which has shown drops in cases.’
Plan B could see mandatory facemasks indoors brought back, guidance to work form home and the use of Covid passports.
Later, Prof Pollard said there has been a lot of infection in teenagers already and so, for a lot of people, having a single dose of a vaccine was actually like having a second dose.
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