England had the highest levels of excess deaths in Europe in the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, according to data showing the effect of the virus across the continent.
Data analysis released by the Office for National Statistics showed that, while England did not have the highest peak mortality, it did have the longest continuous period of excess mortality.
It is the first time the ONS has compared mortality rates in different countries to measure the impact of the pandemic.
The data – which allows comparisons between 29 European countries and treats the four nations of the UK separately – shows that the cumulative death rate at the end of May (week 22) put England above Spain as the worst-affected country among those analysed.
Scotland was the third worst-affected country, followed by Belgium and Wales. Northern Ireland was eighth, having fared better than Sweden or the Netherlands by the end of May.
Excess mortality is the number of deaths above what would be expected in a normal year based on the five-year average from 2015-19 and encompasses all deaths, including those from Covid-19.
England experienced the highest death rate in any country in the week ending 11 April, when mortality stood at twice the norm (108%), the third worst week experienced by any European country as coronavirus swept the continent. Only Spain, which had death rates of 122.7 and 138.5 in weeks 13 and 14 respectively, fared worse.
Among the larger European cities, the highest excess death rate was observed in Madrid, which was 433% higher than average in the week to 27 March.
In the UK, Birmingham had the highest excess mortality in any one week, at 250% above average in the week to 17 April, followed by London and Manchester, which were 227% and 198% above average in the same week.
The ONS’s analysis of Eurostat’s raw data shows cities such as Rome in Italy and Cádiz in southern Spain had negligible increases in mortality during the pandemic, in contrast to the UK, where virtually every area of the country experienced excess deaths.
The figures show that the excess death toll in Spain was even deeper than indicated in previously published data.
According to the Eurostat figures, Spain recorded an estimated 20,623 deaths in the week to 3 April, compared with an average of 8,118 deaths in the previous five years, two and a half times the average number of deaths.
The figures, which give a breakdown of excess deaths at a regional level as well as providing national and metropolitan figures, show that the highest rates of excess mortality were in areas of central Spain and northern Italy.
Bergamo, in northern Italy, had the highest peak excess mortality, 848%, in the week ending 20 March.
The highest excess death rate experienced in the UK regional breakdown was in Brent, north-west London, which experienced an excess of 358% in the week ending 17 April.
Edward Morgan, a health analysis and life events demographer at the ONS, said that while none of the four UK nations had a peak mortality level as high as Spain, or local alreas as badly hit as those in Spain and Italy, “excess mortality was geographically widespread throughout the UK during the pandemic, whereas it was more geographically localised in most countries of western Europe”.
“Combined with the relatively slow downward ‘tail’ of the pandemic in the UK, this meant that by the end of May, England had seen the highest overall relative excess mortality out of all the European countries compared,” Morgan said.
Responding to the data, Dr Veena Raleigh, a senior fellow at the King’s Fund thinktank, said the “unequal impact” of the virus on older people, ethnic minorities, and those living in more deprived areas exposed “yet again the wide and widening health divide in our population”.
“The priority for the UK is to control the pandemic and learn lessons ahead of a potential second wave, but it is also essential to tackle the underlying reasons for stalling life expectancy in recent years – many of which contribute to poor Covid-19 outcomes.”
The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, described the data on England having the highest level of excess deaths in Europe as “a devastating moment”.
“Every life lost is a tragedy and leaves behind grieving families. We can no longer hide from the fact the government has not handled this crisis well and needs to urgently learn lessons from its mistakes.
“Boris Johnson must now take responsibility for why we were so badly prepared. As we start to see a resurgence in other parts of the world, ministers need to urgently outline the steps they are taking to better protect people and save lives in the months ahead.”
Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, also called for the prime minister to take personal responsibility, describing the findings as “devastating news”.
The Liberal Democrat health spokesperson, Munira Wilson, said it was clear that the government had made mistakes, and called for an immediate independent inquiry. “The unforgiving consequences of the pandemic have left too many families mourning loved ones. It didn’t need to be like this.”