Britain was too slow to act on COVID-19, opposition leader says

LONDON (Reuters) – The leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party said on Wednesday that the government had been too slow to impose a lockdown to counter the spread of the novel coronavirus and so could end up having the worst death rate in Europe.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson initially refrained from approving the stringent controls that other European leaders imposed but then closed down the country when projections showed a quarter of a million people could die in the United Kingdom.

So far, more than 12,868 people with COVID-19 have died in British hospitals, though new official data indicates the true death toll could be much larger.

“I am worried that it looks like we are going to have a higher death rate than any other country in Europe and there will obviously be searching questions about why that has happened,” Labour Party leader Keir Starmer told LBC radio.

“I did think the government was going too slowly,” Starmer said. “We will have to look back in due course.”

A widespread lockdown came into force on March 23. Prior to that the Conservative government had urged people not to make unnecessary journeys and to cut down on socialising, rather than closing establishments down.

But Britons had still packed pubs and restaurants, and even the Cheltenham horse-racing event went ahead, bringing together thousands of punters. Johnson even joked about shaking hands with medical staff during a hospital visit.

Starmer, a 57-year-old former prosecutor who won the Labour Party leadership earlier this month, also called on the government to publish its exit strategy from lockdown restrictions.

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The United Kingdom’s hospital death toll from COVID-19 rose by 761 to 12,868 as of 1600 on April 14, the health ministry said.

The official British death toll is the fifth-highest globally after the United States, Italy, Spain and France. The United States has reported more than 28,000 deaths while Italy has reported more tha 21,000.

Governments around the world are grappling with how to reverse measures put in place to contain the outbreak and which are battering the global economy. Several European countries have announced plans or already begun to relax restrictions.

Foreign minister Dominic Raab, who is deputising for Johnson while he recovers from COVID-19, said on Monday he did not expect to make any changes to the restrictions for now. They are due to be reviewed on Thursday.

Starmer said Labour supported extending the measures in Britain but that to “maintain morale and hope”, the public needed to have an idea of what is coming next.

Government officials have defended their course of action regarding the start of the lockdown.

A spokesman for Johnson said the government will make an announcement on Thursday on its review of social distancing measures, repeating that advisers do not believe Britain has passed the peak of the pandemic.

Asked about Starmer’s calls for the government to set out its exit strategy, the spokesman quoted chief medical officer Chris Whitty, who has said such discussions should not happen until the country was beyond the peak.

“To start having that discussion until we are confident that is where we have got to would, I think, be a mistake,” the spokesman said.

Amid the doom, though, there were rays of hope.

A 106-year-old woman, thought to be the oldest patient in Britain to beat the novel coronavirus, was discharged from hospital. Connie Titchen, born in 1913, had battled suspected pneumonia and COVID-19.

A 99-year-old war veteran, Tom Moore, has raised more than 7 million pounds ($8.7 million) for Britain’s health service with a walk around his garden in the coronavirus crisis.

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