How the UK’s coronavirus epidemic compares to other countries

Deaths and confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK have been doubling every three days, and on Friday the country experienced its biggest increase in deaths so far.

Models of the epidemic give very different estimates of its potential final death toll, from tens of thousands to one published on Friday that projected a figure of below 7,000.

So how to make sense of the projections, and what do the patterns of coronavirus deaths in other countries tell us about what could come next in the UK?

How do things look in the UK?
Confirmed cases in the UK are doubling every three or four days. Deaths are growing faster, doubling every two or three days.

This data doesn't show all cases, just the confirmed ones. That's because testing is mainly only carried out on those ill enough to be hospitalised, not those with mild symptoms, and so the true number of cases is higher.

Experts in the field would expect those wider cases to also follow a similar pattern: doubling every few days. That's because viruses multiply and so do the numbers of people infected by them. They keep multiplying at a constant rate until they run out of people to infect or measures to slow the spread take effect.

It's hard to see this constant multiplication from the chart above, but easier to see if you plot the same figures on a different scale.

On the scale shown below, a straight line means "doubling at a constant speed". We have added dotted guide lines on the chart to show what might be expected if cases or deaths were doubling every two or three days.

In reality, doubling speeds often fluctuate until an epidemic reaches a big enough number, say 100 cases. Since that point, confirmed cases in the UK have doubled every 3.3 days.

Thankfully, there haven't been enough deaths in the UK yet for us to draw a settled trend from 100, so our trend line starts from 10.

At the moment, deaths are growing faster than confirmed cases, doubling every 2.5 days.

As of 27 March, the UK has seen 759 deaths. If the speed of doubling continued, we would expect to see another 750 deaths in the following three days and 1,500 in the 2.5 days after that. But is that speed faster or slower in the UK than in other countries?

Is the UK on the same path as Italy?
Italy has the most advanced epidemic in Europe, with the most confirmed cases and the most deaths.

On average, the number of deaths in Italy has doubled every three days, but that masks rapid growth for the first 1,000 deaths followed by a slower pace of growth, suggesting that the course of the epidemic is changing.

In other European countries, the early numbers of deaths are also following that pattern of doubling every two to three days.

One notable exception is Spain, where the number of deaths does appear to be rising faster than elsewhere (every two-and-a-quarter days) well past their 1,000 death.

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