UK passes 50,000 Covid deaths - how did we get here and could more lives have been saved?

Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand

Just over eight months since the first recorded Covid-19 fatality in the UK, the virus death toll across the four nations has now passed 50,000. 

On Wednesday, the government said a total of 50,365 people have died within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 test. The UK is the first European country to pass the grim milestone.Every year, about 600,000 people in the UK die, but in the five months from the first recorded death in March to August, Covid-19 deaths in England and Wales had already exceeded the annual number of deaths from stroke or lung cancer in 2019. 

So how did this virus, unknown this time last year, have such deadly consequences for the UK? What have we learned about the virus and could more lives have been saved?

Brent Taylor sadly lost his wife after she contracted coronavirus last month. He wants others to be careful

When was the first UK Covid 19-related death? 

The first known death in the UK of a patient who had tested positive for coronavirus was reported on March 5. She was believed to be a woman in her 70s with an “underlying health condition” - a phrase that would soon become very familiar to the nation's ears.

At the time, the UK was in the “contain phase” of the virus, which meant, in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s own words, it was “business as usual”. 

During the "contain phase", officials aimed to detect and isolate early cases and trace people who had been in contact with those infected in a bid to prevent the virus from spreading widely across the country.

As we know, this was soon abandoned, as track and trace was out manoeuvred and outnumbered by a virus already rapidly germinating its seeds of sorrow and devastation. 

Boris Johnson on 50,000 Covid death milestone

When did most deaths occur?

April remains the UK's bleakest month during this pandemic.

On April 8, 1,073 people died after testing positive for Covid-19 - the peak number of deaths in a single day.

Why has coronavirus hit some families and care homes so badly?

The tragedy of Covid-19 is the explosive nature of its transmission, meaning it can infect whole families, households, hospital wards and workplaces at rapid speed. 

This is one reason why care homes were hit particularly badly once the virus crossed its threshold; deaths in care homes are thought to have accounted for almost half of the total number of coronavirus related deaths in the UK. 

At the height of the pandemic, almost 500 care home residents died in one day; in one week in mid-April there were more than 3,000 care home deaths involving coronavirus according to a UK-wide review of daily deaths by the PA news agency released in September. 

Government needs to learn lessons, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer says, after UK passes grim 50,000 death milestone

It has also meant some families have lost several members from the disease, like the family in Wales who lost a mother and two sons, or the two brothers Ghulam Abbas, 59, and Raza Abbas, 54, also from Wales, who died within hours of each other. And there's twin sisters Eleanor and Eileen who lived together and who died together after contracting Covid-19 aged 66. Olume Ivowi, a 46-year-old business analyst from Luton, died on April 10 with Covid-19; his 38-year-old brother Isi died in hospital with the virus just over a week later.

The devastating impact of the virus is why 13-year-old Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab was buried alone without his family around him as they self-isolated having also been infected.

 Why are deaths reported as ‘died after testing positive for Covid-19’?

When a person dies with the virus in their body, it must be reported they had the infection - it could be the major cause, a contributory factor or they may die of something else unrelated.

Covid-19 deaths are reported weekly by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and daily by the government (these are the figures reported by ITV News every day) incorporating the UK as a whole, and by all health bodies of the the four nations individually. 

The ONS numbers are higher because they include deaths where Covid-19 was recorded as a cause of death on the death certificate, whether or not there was a lab-confirmed test, but where the doctor believes Covid-19 to have caused or contributed to the death based on the deceased’s symptoms. There is also no time frame on when the test was taken to the time of death.

PM Boris Johnson takes a coronavirus test at a testing centre in De Montfort University in Leicester during a visit to the East Midlands. Credit: PA

Separate figures published by the UK’s statistics agencies for deaths when Covid-19 has been mentioned on the death certificate, together with additional data on deaths that have occurred in recent days, show there have now been 65,000 deaths involving coronavirus in the UK.

The government numbers include only deaths within 28 days of a positive test after Public Health England was asked to review its methodology for reporting daily Covid-19 deaths in England and, following a review, its reporting was brought in line with the rest of the UK. 

There were about 58,000 excess total deaths between early March and August 7, 2020, compared with the 2015–19 average for the same period, according to the King’s Fund. 

In the week ending October 9, there were 112 excess deaths in England, for the same week, the ONS reports 140 excess deaths for England.

According to the website Full Fact, the UK is on course to record the highest annual death toll in the UK since 1985 in 2020.

Who is more likely to die from Covid-19?

Obesity, age, co-morbidities (for example pre-existing conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes), and deprivation are large contributing factors in Covid-related deaths. 

Who is the youngest victim of Covid-19?

Children and infants are very unlikely to die from Covid-19, but a 13-day-old baby is believed to be the youngest victim of the virus.

Analysis by ITV News Science Editor Tom Clarke

What a tragic irony that we should pass 50,000 Covid deaths on Armistice Day, when Britain stops to remember its dead. And just like the Unknown Soldier, this milestone is also symbolic. The truth is, we’ll probably never know the true death-toll from Covid-19.We know the 50,000 recorded cases we’ve passed today is an underestimate. The statisticians rightly urge us to trust a different measure: excess mortality — a measure of how much higher average death rates are at the moment compared to the five year average for the time of year.

By that estimate, we’ve already lost more than 70,000 due to this coronavirus. Not just due to the infection, but due to it’s unseen corollaries: appointments or diagnoses missed due to fear or delay, care denied because of pressure on the health system, or simply due to the isolation of lockdown itself.There is no doubt, looking back from this cruel milestone, that the number of deaths could have been many thousands lower. If we’d had better testing, or listened more urgently to the scientists, we might have locked down in March a week earlier. An action that would have saved 20,000 lives.Some of those currently dying in hospital, though thankfully in far smaller numbers than in the first wave, might not be there if the government had opted for a “circuit-breaker” lockdown when one was first proposed by scientific advisors in the second week of September rather than a national lockdown the following month.But perhaps for the first time since the virus took hold we can now start to look forward, too. We have positive news on one vaccine and reason to expect similar news from others. We are at the beginning of the end.

Listen to our coronavirus podcast with advice and analysis on the pandemic