UK’s high Covid case rates buck trend as western Europe outperforms east

Slower vaccination rates in east lead to dramatic surge in cases, while UK remains outlier in west

Higher vaccination rates are translating to lower Covid infection and death rates in western Europe than in parts of central and eastern Europe, the latest data suggests – except in the UK where case numbers are surging.

Figures from Our World In Data indicate a clear correlation between the percentage of people fully vaccinated and new daily cases and fatalities, with health systems in some under-inoculated central and eastern EU states under acute strain.

The outlier appears to be Britain, which – though now overtaken by multiple EU states – has vaccinated a similar share of its population to most western European countries, but has an infection rate that more closely resembles those in the east.

Slower vaccination programmes in central and eastern Europe combined with an easing of most social distancing requirements over the summer have led to a dramatic surge in Covid cases in some central and eastern European countries.

Driven by the more infectious Delta variant, the Baltic states of Lithuania (771) and Latvia (737) have the highest rolling seven-day average of new daily cases per million, according to Our World In Data, with Romania (678) and Estonia (675) not far behind.

The same countries, with Bulgaria, are also enduring among Europe’s highest daily fatality rates per million, with Romania on a rolling average of 14 and Bulgaria on 13, followed by Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia on 9, 5 and 3 respectively.

Those figures stand in stark contrast to some of the best-performing countries in western Europe: new daily infections per million in Spain, Italy, Portugal, Sweden and France are more than 10 times lower, at about 38, 43, 59, 59 and 76 respectively, with figures for daily deaths per million similarly down at between 0.5 to 0.9.

Health systems in Romania, Bulgaria and Latvia are struggling to cope, with hospitals running at 80% to 100% capacity. Romania last week postponed all non-essential operations, Bulgaria is battling a wave of fake vaccination and PCR test certificates and Latvia has declared a medical emergency.

“If the current flow of patients continues, in one or two days the health system will collapse because we already don’t have enough place to accommodate the sick,” the director of Bucharest’s Matei Bals hospital, Cătălin Apostolescu, said last week.

On Thursday there were 14,457 new Covid cases in Romania in 24 hours, in a country of just over 19 million, while Friday’s death toll was the highest of the pandemic so far, with 385 people dying from coronavirus. For the first time since the start of the pandemic, the country is envisaging sending critically ill patients abroad.

“I fear we are already in the Italy scenario,” said the head of the national vaccination campaign, Valeriu Gheorghiță, referring to the healthcare system in northern Italy becoming overwhelmed in March 2020 during the first wave of the virus.

The correlation with vaccination progress appears plain. Again according to Our World In Data, Bulgaria and Romania have the EU’s lowest immunisation rates, with just 20% and 29% of their total populations having received two doses.

Latvia and Estonia are performing better at 48% and 43%, but even those figures are a very long way from the percentages recorded by many western European countries.

Portugal has now fully vaccinated nearly 86% of its total population, Spain nearly 79%, Italy more than 68% and France more than 66%, with any increase in cases having only a very limited impact on fatality figures.

Official data shows more than 70% of confirmed infections and 93% of deaths in Romania are in unvaccinated people, “We are still a battlefield, sadly,” said Adrian Marinescu, the medical director of the national institute for infectious diseases. “Vaccination is often the difference between life and death for a vulnerable person.”

Bulgaria and Romania face the additional challenge of political crises. Bulgaria is heading into its third parliamentary election in less than a year while Romania’s government was toppled last week in a no-confidence vote, leaving politicians in both countries reluctant to impose tougher restrictions for fear of upsetting voters.

Britain is in the unusual position of having fully vaccinated a relatively high percentage of its population (just over 66%), but also having Europe’s fifth-highest infection rate, at 534 new daily cases per million people – not far behind the Baltics and between eight and 12 times higher that France, Italy and Spain.

After a hugely successful early vaccination rollout, the UK has been overtaken by seven EU states, partly because many continental countries began vaccinating children over 12 as early as June – although other factors, such as strong incentivisation through vaccine passports, have also helped boost vaccination rates in countries such as France.

Covid passes

While the UK’s relatively high vaccination rate means deaths per million are a fraction of the daily total in Bulgaria and Romania, they are still the highest in western Europe, significantly above such countries as Spain, France, Italy and Germany.

Experts have suggested this may be because most western European countries retained significant distancing and other Covid-related restrictions when they opened up during the summer, while England decided to drop almost all of its measures.

Germany and Italy, for example, still restrict large gatherings, while Spain enforces social distancing in schools. Many countries also require proof of vaccination or a negative test to enter public spaces such as museums and theatres, as well as cafes and restaurants, and masks are still mandatory on public transport and in shops.

Christina Pagel and Martin McKee, members of Independent Sage, an expert group critical of the UK government’s approach, wrote last week in the Guardian that the UK was pursuing what they termed a “vaccine just” strategy, while much of western Europe had opted for “vaccine plus”.

“Both require vaccinating as many people as possible,” Pagel and McKee wrote. But while Britain had relied only on vaccines – where it was now starting to fall behind – “face coverings and vaccine passports remain widespread across western Europe”. They said England, “not for the first time, is the odd one out in Europe.”


Jon Henley Europe correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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