‘Storm clouds’ over Europe – but UK Covid rates remain high

By Jon Henley

As Covid infection rates surged again across Europe, Boris Johnson spoke this week of “storm clouds gathering” over parts of the continent and said it was unclear when or how badly the latest wave would “wash up on our shores”.

The situation in some EU member states, particularly those with low vaccination rates, is indeed dramatic. In central and eastern Europe in particular, but also Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands, case numbers are rocketing.

But missing from the prime minister’s remarks, and from much of the media coverage of them, was the fact that Britain’s rolling seven-day average of daily new coronavirus cases is still higher than the average of the EU27, and has been since June.

According to figures from OurWorldInData, the EU’s average has quadrupled in recent weeks, from just over 110 daily new cases per million people on 1 October to 446 on Thursday.

The UK began that same period with a daily infection rate of 505 per million people, nearly five times the EU27 average. After peaking at nearly 700 in late October the rate fell to 495 on 10 November, but for the past week it has been climbing sharply again.

Covid cases graph

The headlines made much of Angela Merkel describing Germany’s situation as “dramatic”, but at 536 per million, its infection rate is lower than Britain’s 581 – which remains 30% higher than the average for the EU27.

Slovakia and Slovenia are currently the EU’s hardest-hit countries, with rolling seven-day average rates of 1,643 and 1,581 per million respectively.

Not far behind are Austria – western Europe’s least vaccinated country, with 64% of the total population inoculated – on 1,395, Croatia on 1,275, and Belgium, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, all with rates of more than 1,000.

Other EU members including Ireland, Hungary, Greece and the Baltic states also have infection rates higher than the UK’s. But several – mainly those with high vaccination rates and relatively strict social distancing rules – do not.

They include France on 201 daily infections per million, Italy on 138 and Spain on 95, as well as Portugal, Finland and Sweden. Infection rates in Romania and Bulgaria, previously the EU’s worst-affected countries, are now also much lower.

Vaccinations chart

The WHO has said repeatedly in recent weeks that its 53-country European region is again at the centre of the pandemic, and no one knows whether those continental countries that have so far kept rates relatively low will continue to do so.

Britain’s infection rate, meanwhile, has climbed by about 15% over the past 10 days, from a base that for the past six months has been consistently higher than the European average – something the prime minister does not often mention.