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UK PM insists response to coronavirus has been 'astonishing'

AFP/Reuters/London, United Kingdom
Filed on June 11, 2020 | Last updated on June 11, 2020 at 12.16 am
Boris Johnson, astonishing, Britain, response, coronavirus, Covid-19, crisis., Professor Neil Feruson, lockdown

(Reuters)

But a top scientist who had advised the government said the death toll could have been halved had lockdown measures been introduced a week sooner.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday defended what he called Britain's 'astonishing' efforts to tackle the coronavirus, rejecting accusations that with Europe's worst death toll, his response to the health crisis was badly lacking.

But a top scientist who had advised the government said the death toll could have been halved had lockdown measures been introduced a week sooner.

More than 40,000 people are confirmed to have died from Covid-19 in Britain's outbreak so far, although the figure rises to more than 50,000 when suspected cases are included.

On either measure, the toll is second only to that of the United States, although each country has different reporting methods and lag times -- and the pandemic is far from over. 

In a testy exchange with his opponents in parliament, Johnson cited the "astonishing achievement" by the state-run National Health Service (NHS) in building a string of emergency field hospitals -- many of which were barely used.

"It was an astonishing thing this country came together to drive down, to follow the social distancing rules... to get the epidemic under control in the way we have," he said.

- 'Summer of catch-up'

But an Imperial College London epidemiologist, who quit the government's crisis response team after being caught breaking social distancing rules in May, said thousands of lives could have been saved had a lockdown been imposed earlier. 

"The epidemic was doubling every three to four days before lockdown interventions were introduced," Neil Ferguson told a parliamentary science and technology committee hearing.

"So, had we introduced lockdown measures a week earlier, we would have reduced the final death toll by at least a half." 

On March 13, the government's scientific advisory team concluded with "near certainty" that a lockdown such as that introduced in China at the time "will cause a second peak". 

Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said the one issue he would choose to look at was how to speed up testing earlier.

"Many of the problems that we had came because we were unable to work out exactly where we were ..," he said.

Asked about Ferguson's comments, Johnson said it was premature to reach definitive conclusions.

"There is still too much we do not know," he told reporters.

Pushing ahead with his gradual lockdown easing, Johnson confirmed that all remaining shops would reopen starting next week and that single adults could form a "support bubble" with one other household.

But his decision to reopen zoos and wildlife parks from next Monday, and failure to ensure the immediate return of children to school in England before the summer holidays in July, faced ridicule across the political spectrum.

"What we will be doing is a huge amount of catch-up for our students in the summer months," Johnson told reporters, after being asked why children would be allowed to see lions but not schoolteachers.

"We do fully intend to bring all the children back to school in September provided the progress we are making continues," he added.

But even some of Johnson's strongest supporters in the right-wing media lamented the government's handling of the crisis, with The Daily Telegraph asking "how we can continue to justify keeping (schools) closed".

"Parents have lost confidence in the government's approach," opposition Labour party leader Keir Starmer said.

Runnymede Trust race equality think-tank director Zubaida Haque told a parliamentary hearing that home lessons were hurting disadvantaged children the most because they often lack access to computers or go to schools with less developed online programmes.

"Disadvantaged students have considerably lost out in terms of remote learning throughout the last couple of months," Haque said.

Meanwhile, English adults who live alone, as well as single parents, will be allowed to meet another household indoors from this weekend, and will not need to keep 2 metres apart,  Johnson also said on Wednesday.

"There are too many people ... particularly those who live by themselves, who are lonely and struggling with being unable to see friends and family," Johnson said at the government's daily news conference.

"So from this weekend we will allow single adult households - adults living alone, or single parents with children under 18 - to form a 'support bubble' with one other household," he added.


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