As Britain's death toll tops 12,000, new Labour leader says government was slow to act

Keir Starmer, the new leader of Britain's main Opposition party accuses the government of being too slow to impose a lockdown when the novel coronavirus first hit the country, a day before Britain will announce its review of social distancing measures.

Keir Starmer says there will be 'searching questions' about handling of coronavirus

A tourist souvenir shop on Oxford Street in London remains closed on Wednesday, as the country is in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. (Frank Augstein/The Associated Press)

The British government will make an announcement Thursday on its review of social distancing measures, a spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, repeating that advisers do not believe the country has passed the peak of the coronavirus pandemic.

"The review will be considered by ministers and in keeping with the timeline which we set out to Parliament. You can expect us to make an announcement tomorrow," the spokesperson told reporters on Wednesday.

Asked about calls by the main opposition Labour Party to set out the government's exit strategy, the spokesperson 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.

Keir Starmer, the Labour Party's new leader, accused the government on Wednesday of being too slow to impose a lockdown when the novel coronavirus first hit the country.

Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer says, 'I am worried that it looks like we are going to have a higher death rate than any other country in Europe.' (Simon Dawson/Reuters)

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," 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 socializing, 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 bettors.

Calls for government to be transparent

Starmer, a 57-year-old former prosecutor who won the Labour 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.

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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."

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.

Foreign Minister Dominic Raab has been filling in for Johnson while the prime minister recovers from COVID-19.

The United Kingdom's hospital death toll from COVID-19 rose by 761 to 12,868 as of 4 p.m. local time on April 14, the health ministry said on Wednesday.

Deaths in British hospitals rose 651 to 11,656, the national health service said. Twenty of the 651 patients — aged between 20 and 101 — had no known underlying health condition.

The country's single-day high with respect to the death toll was 980 on April 10.

The true death toll far exceeds the hospital toll as people have also died in nursing homes and in the wider community, broader data showed on Tuesday.

The ministry said 313,769 people have been tested of which 98,476 tested positive.