A study suggesting the UK now has the highest Covid-19 death rate in the world has been dismissed as “not accurate” by a Cabinet minister.
“We can’t answer that question at the moment, because we are not at the other side of the virus,” the Northern Ireland Secretary told ITV's Good Morning Britain.
Challenged why “ten months into the pandemic” was the wrong time to make such a calculation, Mr Lewis agreed it was “frustrating”, but insisted: “The pandemic is still moving around the world.
He added: “You can't do a direct comparison of that type with this virus in terms of death rates.”
In a Sky News interview, Mr Lewis said: “It’s not really appropriate, or entirely accurate, to do direct comparisons with other countries around the world at the moment.”
Watch: Minister says ‘too early’ to explain why UK has worst COVID death rate
The figures, from Oxford University's Our World In Data platform, showed 16.7 deaths per million in the UK on a seven-day average, ahead of the Czech Republic on 15.7.
They do not attempt to assess overall Covid deaths, or overall ‘excess deaths’ during the pandemic which scientists say will ultimately be the best measure of how countries have performed.
However, the chart does seek to ranks countries by their average Covid death toll over the previous seven days.
The UK was calculated to have overtaken the Czech Republic, which had held the top spot since 11 January, on Sunday night – after the post-Christmas second wave took grip.
Furthermore, the UK has the highest cumulative death toll in Europe and ranks only behind the US, Brazil, India and Mexico globally – all of which have far higher populations.
The clash came as scientists stepped up their push for a public awareness campaign to stress the need for people to still follow restrictions, even after being vaccinated.
People are preparing to meet friends and family as soon as they are vaccinated in the mistaken belief they are “good to go”, a leading government adviser warned.
Surveys pointed to a “day or two before the Armistice” effect, Dr David Halpern said – with people wrongly thinking they and others immediately have Covid-19 protection.
“We definitely do worry that people feel that, the second they have got that vaccination they are good to go,” the Sage adviser told MPs.
“People are going to be over-confident too fast on the vaccine,” Dr Halpern added.
In fact, it was “at least 12 days ,2 weeks” before a jab delivered any immunity – and scientists still do not know if it will prevent transmission, or merely becoming ill.
Watch: What is long COVID?