Britain on Saturday passed the grim milestone of over 20,000 coronavirus deaths, as the daily toll rose 813 to 20,319 people who tested positive for the illness and died in hospital.
Back in mid-March, the government’s chief scientific adviser said that keeping the death toll below 20,000 would be a “good outcome”.
The British government is facing growing criticism over its response to the new coronavirus pandemic as the death toll rises. Britain was slower to impose a lockdown than its peers in Europe and is struggling to raise its testing capacity.
The country has the fifth-highest official coronavirus death toll in the world, after the United States, Italy, Spain and France. Scientists have said that the death rate will only start to decline quickly in another couple of weeks.
The total number of deaths is likely to be thousands higher once more comprehensive but lagging figures that include deaths in nursing homes are added. As of April 10, the hospital toll underestimated deaths by around 40 per cent.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is still recovering after falling seriously ill with Covid-19 earlier this month and in his absence, government ministers have been struggling to explain high death rates, limited testing and shortages of protective equipment for medical workers and carers.
Health ministry data published on Saturday showed that 28,760 tests were carried out on 24 April. That is likely to put further pressure on the government given its target of hitting 100,000 tests per day by the end of April is just days away.
There are concerns that limited testing could mean a slow exit from lockdown and a worse hit for Britain’s economy, the world’s fifth largest.
Earlier on Saturday, Stephen Powis, the medical director of the National Health Service (NHS) in England, declined to give a new number for how many deaths could now be expected, but told BBC Radio: “It will take some time, it may take many years, before the full effect of the pandemic is known in this country.”
Meanwhile, Britain’s government on Saturday defended the independence of the scientists advising it on coronavirus, after it emerged that Johnson’s controversial chief aide had attended meetings of the group.
Criticism of Johnson’s Conservative government is mounting as the UK’s death toll rises and a nationwide lockdown imposed a month ago drags on.
After a report in The Guardian, the government confirmed that Johnson adviser Dominic Cummings had attended several meetings of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, or SAGE, and listened to discussions. But it denied The Guardian’s claim that Cummings, who is not a scientist, was a member of the group.
Cummings is a contentious figure, a self-styled political disrupter who was appointed to a key role by Johnson after masterminding the victorious “leave” campaign during Britain’s 2016 referendum on European Union membership.
The government said “SAGE provides independent scientific advice to the government. Political advisers have no role in this”.
SAGE is a usually little-known group headed by Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance and Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty. The government has declined to publish its full membership, saying that could leave the scientists open to lobbying or other pressure.
David King, a former government chief scientific adviser, told The Guardian he was “shocked” to learn political advisers were involved in SAGE meetings. But other scientists who have advised the government said it was usual for political aides to attend, though only as observers.
The main opposition Labour Party said Cummings’ attendance raised questions about the credibility of government decision-making.
“The best way to clear all of this up is for the government to be completely transparent with us and publish the minutes of the SAGE committee,” said Labour health spokesman Jonathan Ashworth.