“You have actually done worse than England in dealing with the Covid-19 second wave… Have you let Scotland down?” – Andrew Marr questioning Nicola Sturgeon, November 29, 2020.


According to the Conservative Government’s own figures, the Covid death toll in Scotland per 100,000 is seven per cent lower than in England since the pandemic began.


During his TV interview with the First Minister on Sunday November 29, Andrew Marr put on screen a snapshot of figures purporting to show that deaths from Covid-19 in Scotland were running far ahead of those in England, on a proportional basis. Marr berated the FM: “Week after week the Scottish [Covid] death rate is worse than the English … Have you let the people of Scotland down?”

READ MORE: Sarah Vine claims royal tour has damaged Nicola Sturgeon's independence hopes

The figures Marr was using covered only four weeks of the pandemic out of 46. He gave no explanation of why these had been plucked – we assume because they were the most recent. He did not refer to the fact that Covid death rates – atypically – had accelerated over England’s in the other devolved administrations. He made no reference to the dynamics and timing of the second wave of the pandemic in the various UK nations and regions.

What is the truth about Covid death rates across the UK – remembering, as the FM pointed out to Marr - is that any death is a tragedy.


Glasgow-born Andrew Marr is the anchor of the eponymous BBC flagship news programme broadcast on Sunday mornings. The BBC claims the show gets a regular 2 million viewers. Marr went to Loretto, a private school, and graduated from Cambridge University before becoming a journalist.


The Marr Show chose to highlight only four weeks (43-47). A more accurate approach would be to look at the overall picture since the pandemic began, rather than isolate random weeks.

Data on the official UK Government website dated December 1, 2020 ( reports 59,618 deaths in England with Covid-19 on the death certificate since the pandemic began, compared to 5380 in Scotland.

According to the UK Government source, this yields a death rate per 100,000 of population at 105.9 in England and 98.5 in Scotland. The equivalent rate for Wales is 109.5 deaths per 100,000 and in Northern Ireland 68.7.

This evidence (which is accurate to November 20) shows that the death rate in Scotland over the course of the crisis is roughly 7 percentage points lower than in England – though any death is a tragedy. On this basis, Andrew Marr’s questioning was based on a false premise.

Note that recording data on Covid deaths is an inexact science and figures vary between jurisdictions and depending on time lapses. However, we have reported here the UK Government’s aggregated figures, which clearly show the Scottish death rate to be lower than that of England, over the whole pandemic.


However, it is true that, when the so-called second wave of the pandemic started in October, there was an apparent acceleration of weekly deaths in Scotland (and Wales and Northern Ireland) compared to England, though deaths in England were also rising in absolute terms. This was a reverse of the experience during the first wave, in the spring of 2020.

Two things explain this. First, the Scottish Government reacted faster than the UK Government during the first wave, dampening the course of the pandemic relative to England. The second wave hit more uniformly and both governments reacted in real time.

Second, the second wave hit England in a differentiated form, with the impact being highly regionalised and specific to the poorest urban areas. Averaging out the recent English Covid death toll across the country obscures the appallingly high death rate associated with big urban conurbations. These are the more appropriate comparators with Scotland.

Looking at deaths per 100,000 in comparable English regions, since the pandemic began, the toll is much worse than in Scotland.

READ MORE: 40 English mayors send letter asking Boris Johnson to save 'precious' Union

Deaths from Covid per 100,000 in the English North West averages at 151 compared to 98.5 in Scotland – a whole 50 per cent worse. In the North East, the ratio is 142.2 and in Yorkshire and Humber it is 122.

In big English towns, the Covid death toll per 100,000 is staggering: Tameside stands at 217.2 and Liverpool 178.9. Even in the worst affected urban zones in Scotland, these tragic numbers are not seen. The highest figure is in West Dunbartonshire at 159. Glasgow City registers at 127.

One key reason for the poor English statistics is the premature ending of the first lockdown. This occurred because the Conservative Government was in a rush to re-start the economy, especially in the hard-hit northern towns which the Tories had captured electorally in the 2019 General Election. But ending the lockdown helped trigger a second wave of infections. This second wave proved so infectious in parts of urban England - in mid-October 40 per cent of all coronavirus cases in England were in Greater Liverpool - that a complete lockdown had to be re-introduced.

The second wave only spread to Scotland after it had taken hold in England. Andrew Marr’s reference to the rising death toll in Scotland sidestepped the fact that a worse relapse had already occurred in England, forcing the Johnson Government to U-turn on its premature re-boot of the economy. In effect, the Scottish Government was having to cope with a problem made in England.


The Marr interview focused on a small set of weekly figures from the second wave of the pandemic. No one denies the existence of the second wave. But how has the Scottish Government dealt with it compared to the first wave? That is the appropriate question.

Here is the verdict of Professor Sheila Bird, former programme leader at the MRC Biostatistics Unit: “The first 11 weeks of wave 2 have claimed about only a fifth of the lives that ended as Covid-mention deaths in the first 11 weeks of wave 1… we and our governments should take some heart; but not rest on our laurels nor let up on safeguarding each other.”

FACTCHECK RATING: BBC being selective – as usual