LONDON (Reuters) – The leader of Britain’s main opposition party on Wednesday accused the government of being too slow to impose a lockdown when the novel coronavirus first hit the country.
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 12,000 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 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.
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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.
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.
“Overcoming this crisis requires taking the British public with you,” Starmer said. “The government needs to be open and transparent…The silent pressures on communities across the country cannot be underestimated.”
Governemnt officials have defended their course of action.
A government source said all decisions would be guided by scientific advice and data.
“Talk of an exit strategy before we have reached the peak risks confusing the critical message that people need to stay at home in order to protect our NHS (National Health Service) and save lives,” the source said.
The government promised on Wednesday to test all residents and employees of nursing homes who have COVID-19 symptoms after official data showed the death toll from the pandemic was far higher when the elderly in care were included.
The COVID-19 death toll in hospitals across the United Kingdom rose to 12,107 as of 1600 GMT on April 13, up by 778 on the day before.
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