LONDON (Reuters) – Britain could hit the grim milestone of 20,000 COVID-19 deaths later on Saturday, when the daily count is added to the current toll of 19,506 people who tested positive for the new coronavirus and died in hospital.
As the death toll rises, the government is facing growing criticism over its response to the pandemic. It was slower to impose a lockdown than European peers and is struggling to raise its testing capacity.
Back in mid-March the government’s chief scientific adviser said that keeping the death toll below 20,000 would be a “good outcome”.
Deaths from COVID-19 in hospitals across the United Kingdom increased on Friday by 684 in 24 hours to 19,506, meaning the 20,000 mark may well be crossed on Saturday.
Britain 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%.
Stephen Powis, the medical director of the National Health Service (NHS) in England, declined to give a new number, 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.”
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.
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.
The government’s target of hitting 100,000 tests per day by the end of April is just days away. Reaching it would require a big leap from the 28,532 tests carried out on 23 April, the last day for which data is available.
Striking a positive note, medical director Powis said the NHS had not been overwhelmed in the way that hospitals in some other countries have been. Healthcare providers were now preparing to ramp up non-coronavirus treatments, such as restarting planned surgeries.
“As we are now beginning to see a decline, a decrease, in the number of patients with coronavirus, it is absolutely the time to start building up our services again,” he said.
(Reporting by Sarah Young; Editing by Frances Kerry)