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Nearly 1,500 deaths in one day: UK ministers accused of downplaying Covid-19 peak

Official toll passed a thousand on 22 consecutive days –

far more than daily briefings said

Dominic Raab giving the daily briefing on 9 April

Dominic Raab giving the daily briefing on 9 April, when he said UK coronavirus deaths had risen by 881. The actual toll was 64% higher. Photograph: Pippa Fowles/10 Downing Street/AFP via Getty Images

Ministers have been accused of playing down the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic after it emerged that more than 1,000 people died every day in the UK for 22 consecutive days – in stark contrast with daily tolls announced by the government.

According to an analysis of official figures, the darkest day came on 8 April as the country prepared for Easter under lockdown, when a record 1,445 people died from Covid-19 in 24 hours.

The figures – encompassing deaths in hospitals, care homes and private residences – are far higher than the numbers announced by ministers during that period at the daily Downing Street briefings, as the pandemic peaked faster than forecast.

Critics say ministers should have more clearly underlined that the reported death tolls were underestimates of the true tallies as they only counted deaths in hospitals after positive Covid-19 tests, excluding thousands who died in care homes.

It was not until 29 April that the government changed its daily data to include deaths in all settings, including those without a test. The Department of Health and Social Care has said it was technically challenging and time-consuming to collate the data and ensure the cause of death attribution was correct.

On 9 April the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, standing in for the hospitalised prime minister, said the death toll had increased by 881 on the previous day. The actual death toll was 64% higher than that.

At the start of Easter week, on Monday 6 April, Raab announced the death toll in the 24 hours to 5pm on Sunday 5 April had risen by 439. Official figures show that in fact almost three times as many people died on 5 April – a total of 1,210.

At no time during the period in which more than 1,000 people were dying daily did the Downing Street briefing say the daily death toll had gone into four figures. The highest reported single-day toll announced at a government briefing was 980.

In just over three weeks between 2 and 23 April, 26,566 people died – more than half the total death toll of 52,161 deaths to 5 June – and drove the UK to the status of the worst affected country in Europe.

Sir David King, the former government chief scientific adviser and chairman of the independent Sage group, said the gap between the Downing Street figures and the true toll was “an attempt to play down the adversity that the country was faced with”.

“They didn’t say we have to add on all these other numbers which would have been a more honest thing to say,” said King, who advised Tony Blair’s government on the foot and mouth disease epidemic.

“They were saying things were more rosy than they actually were. The most important thing when you are running any crisis of this kind is truth and honesty. The only way to maintain the moral authority of the government. This is the most disastrous handling of any serious challenge to a government for 100 years.”

A government spokesperson said: “Every death is a tragedy, and our deepest sympathies go out to all the families who have lost loved ones. We have always been transparent about the way we report Covid-19 deaths and it is wrong to suggest we would in any way attempt to play down the scale of this global pandemic. The government’s daily figures and the ONS data count different things, which we have always fully explained and clearly reported.” The DHSC has since published a back-series of daily death tolls.

The peak just before Easter drove up the weekly death toll in England and Wales to the highest level since records began in 2000. It also came faster than many had predicted.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, predicted a plateau starting early in the second half of April that would “go on for two or three weeks”. His estimate of the length of the plateau was right. But he made the prediction of a future plateau on 13 April, when the UK was already in the middle of its worst period.

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