Government under fire over PPE and testing as UK death toll passes 10,000 | World news

The government was warned that Britain risks having the highest death toll from coronavirus in Europe as the total number of fatalities from the disease in UK hospitals rose above 10,000.

As Boris Johnson left hospital,criticism of the government’s response to the epidemic was mounting from senior medics and politicians, particularly over its failure to get enough personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing to NHS and care home workers.

Professor Sir Jeremy Farrar, an adviser to the government and director of the Wellcome Trust, said the figures of almost 1,000 daily hospital deaths showed the UK was in a similar situation to other European countries that had been badly affected.

“Numbers in the UK have continued to go up. I do hope that we are coming close to the numbers reducing. But yes, the UK is likely to be certainly one of the worst, if not the worst affected country in Europe,” he told Sky’s Sophy Ridge programme.

In a video message of optimism and thanks for his care, the prime minister attempted to reassure the nation that the UK was “making progress in this incredible national battle against coronavirus”. He said the NHS had “saved my life, no question” and praised two nurses in particular – “Luis from Portugal and Jenny from New Zealand” – for watching over his bedside in intensive care for 48 hours “when things could have gone either way”.

The total number of hospital deaths stood at 10,612 on Sunday, up by 737 from 9,875 the day before. On Friday and Saturday the death toll rose by more than 900 each day.

Epidemiologists and public health experts are divided over how effective the government’s response has been but criticism has been increasing in recent weeks as the UK death toll rises.

Sue Hill, vice president of the Royal College of Surgeons, said she believed the UK death toll could hit 30,000. She acknowledged that the government has a difficult job but said it gave the appearance of placing “political spin” over action.

Describing the daily Downing Street briefing as “a bit of a joke”, she said: “He [Boris Johnson or another cabinet minister] is sitting there speaking about subjects he doesn’t really understand and can’t answer questions about it. It’s political spin, isn’t it? They’re not doing themselves any favours.

“The thing that irritates me is cabinet ministers are standing up every day, addressing us as if we’re on a war footing and giving Churchillian quotes when they could be doing a few simple things like getting more bits of plastic and paper [which personal protective equipment is made out of] on to wards.”

Prof John Ashton, a former regional director of public health for north-west England, who has previously criticised the government over the crisis, said its performance had worsened.

He said: “It was the failure to convene [the emergency committee] Cobra at the beginning of February that meant everything else flowed from it, the failure to order equipment etc. Now we are into the cover up. Any journalist worth their salt should boycott this propaganda [the daily briefing]. They don’t answer any questions.

“The chief nurse deflected the question about the number of nurses and doctors who died because of confidentiality. She wasn’t being asked about individuals, she was being asked about numbers.”

He also said that people were dying in care homes and at home without being tested while some were being sent home to die before they had been tested.

“There are probably large numbers of people who are not being counted,” said Ashton.

Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said “the time for excuses has passed” when it came to PPE failures and the deaths of medical and care staff.

“Ministers have been saying for weeks that the PPE situation is in hand. That there’s enough to go around and it’s just a matter of logistics. But it isn’t good enough,” he said.

“NHS, care and other key workers are falling ill in huge numbers. Some have already died – including nurses, doctors, care workers, healthcare assistants and porters.”

Unison said its PPE alert hotline has been told of care workers being told to wash their face masks for reuse, threatened with the sack for using them, having to buy their own stock and having to use watered down handwash.

Labour has tried to strike a constructive tone when criticising the government, but Sir Keir Starmer warned of a “mismatch” between the complaints of medical and care that they lack protective equipment and ministers insisting there is enough to go round. The new Labour leader is also expected to press the government this week on gaps in the UK’s financial support schemes for workers and businesses.

Andy Burnham, Labour’s last health secretary, said: “The issue is not whether mistakes will be made, the question is how quickly do you acknowledge them and correct them. I think on certain issues they have done that but on what’s most material – PPE – they haven’t.”

Meanwhile, Labour backbenchers were breaking rank with the leadership, with Barry Sheerman, the Huddersfield MP, saying the government had “failed abysmally” to protect NHS staff and he had tried his “hardest to be fair to the government… but mounting evidence of the sheer incompetence of ministers and the grim fact of 10,000 deaths means now the gloves are off.”

Peter Hain, the Labour peer and former cabinet minister, told the Guardian: “It’s becoming crystal clear the government has shamefully abandoned frontline health and care workers to their Covid-19 fate as they battle to save the desperately ill.”

The opposition has called for immediate talks on the return of a virtual parliament. But with the Commons not due to be recalled until 21 April, Sir Bernard Jenkin, the senior Tory MP and chair of the liaison committee scrutinising the government, called for ministers to agree to a hearing this week.

Writing for the Guardian, he said: “Proper, considered, penetrating, constructive scrutiny does really matter. This is not about hauling ministers before MPs to blame them for the problems they cannot instantly resolve. Former cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell should be commended for his searing honesty when he recently admitted, without prompting, that he should have advised previous governments to commit far more resources to flu pandemic planning.

“This crisis calls for the same candour and transparency; that is what speeds up the learning process, leading to better decisions and more effective action.”

Speaking at No 10’s briefing on Sunday, Matt Hancock, the health secretary, insisted that both more testing and PPE were on their way to the care sector but he could not give a timescale for when either problem would be sorted out, saying it was “impossible” to say when the right kit would be in the right place across 58,000 sites.

Admitting the death figures meant it was a “sombre day” for the UK, he also could not give an update on the number of NHS staff who have died, saying the last previous figure was 19. Statements from hospitals and the families of workers show the figure is more than 30.

The usefulness of figures provided by the government in tracking the spread of the virus have also been called into question, with concerns about the lack of tracking of cases – and deaths – outside hospitals.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the British Medical Association’s council chair, said with testing only going on in hospitals, it was difficult to draw any conclusions from the government statistics.

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