Boris Johnson has insisted his government “did everything we could” to limit coronavirus deaths and expressed sorrow after the total UK death toll exceeded 100,000 on nearly every metric, but refused to discuss the reasons why it might be so high.
Hosting a Downing Street press conference after the Office for National Statistics said the UK had passed 100,000 Covid deaths on 7 January, Johnson took a sombre approach, saying it was “hard to compute the sorrow contained in that grim statistic”.
The prime minister said: “The years of life lost, the family gatherings not attended and, for so many relatives, the missed chance even to say goodbye – I offer my deepest condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one.”
But asked several times by journalists why the UK’s death toll was so high, and what he and the government could have done differently, Johnson declined to tackle the question.
“I think on this day I should just really repeat that I am deeply sorry for every life that has been lost, and of course as I was prime minister I take full responsibility for everything that the government has done,” he said, when asked what had gone wrong with the UK response.
“What I can tell you is that we truly did everything we could, and continue to do everything that we can, to minimise loss of life and to minimise suffering in what has been a very, very difficult stage, and a very, very difficult crisis for our country, and we will continue to do that.”
Pressed on whether he had reflected on what he could have done differently, Johnson gave a similar answer: “We did everything that we could be minimise suffering and minimise loss of life in this country as a result of the pandemic, and I’m deeply sorry for every life lost.”
Prof Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, told the press conference that it was impossible to say how many deaths might occur overall, but that while infection rates were slowing, fatality numbers could plateau for a while at the current very high levels.
“Unfortunately, we are going to see quite a lot more deaths over the next few weeks,” he said.
There were 1,631 deaths reported on Tuesday, according to the government’s daily figures, which count people who die within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19, taking the overall total to 100,162.
The government figures also count mentions of Covid-19 on death certificates that were registered by 15 January. By this measure, there have now been 103,602 deaths.
The total death toll from the UK’s statistical agencies, which includes deaths that occurred up to 15 January but were registered up to 23 January, is now 107,907.
Figures from the ONS also show that 1,719 care home residents died from the virus in the week to 15 January – more than doubling the death toll since Christmas.
The Guardian had previously reported that the milestone of 100,000 deaths had been passed on 13 January, by combining figures from the statistical agencies and the government’s daily figures.
Responding to the data, Richard Murray, the chief executive of the King’s Fund, said: “This time last year, it would be almost impossible to believe that a wealthy island nation with a universal healthcare system would go on to have one of the highest death tolls from the emerging coronavirus pandemic.
“Yet the UK has now passed the grim milestone of 100,000 coronavirus deaths, with many more likely to follow.”
The majority of the deaths were in England, which reported 92,257 deaths to 15 January, followed by Scotland (7,448), Wales (6,074) and Northern Ireland (2,128).
There are signs that case rates in England have begun to level off, according to the latest infection survey from the ONS, which found that positivity had decreased slightly. However, deaths will continue to increase after cases have subsided.
Dr David Spiegelhalter, chair of the Winton Centre at Cambridge University, said: “There will be a lot of attention given to deaths with Covid reaching 100,000, but this is based on the figures released each day, which only include people who had a positive test and then died within 28 days.
“The more accurate ONS data show that over 100,000 people in the UK had already died with Covid on their death certificate by 7 January, nearly three weeks ago. This rose to 108,000 by 15 January, and the total now will be nearly 120,000.
“Around 90% of these had Covid as the immediate cause of death, and so perhaps we can say that around 100,000 people in the UK have now died because of Covid. An awful total.”
In care homes, the sharpest rises in deaths were seen in the north-east, which reported a 58% rise in deaths, data from the Office for National Statistics revealed.
The number of deaths involving Covid in England’s care homes reported to the Care Quality Commission regulator jumped from 1,292 to 1,705 in the week ending 22 January, as rising outbreaks earlier in the month caused by the more transmissible variant led to an increase in fatalities.
In the week to 22 January, 47% of all deaths in care homes in England involved Covid, up from 41% the week before, data from the Care Quality Commission showed.
“Today’s figures make grim reading once again and our thoughts go out to everyone who has lost someone to Covid-19,” said Mike Padgham, chair of the Independent Care Group. “Hopefully, the figures will soon start to improve, as we always knew there would be a lag before the impact of lockdown and the vaccine started to show. Covid-19 is still taking an awful toll and we cannot afford to become complacent.”
The archbishops of Canterbury and York have called on all people to pause, reflect and pray every day at 6pm after the death toll surpassed 100,000.
In an open letter, Justin Welby and Stephen Cottrell say: “100,000 isn’t just an abstract figure. Each number is a person: someone we loved and someone who loved us … We encourage everyone who is feeling scared, or lost or isolated to cast their fears on God.”