Six points of criticism: UK government’s flailing coronavirus response | World news

The government is facing increasingly rigorous scrutiny of its actions in several areas over its preparations for and response to coronavirus. Here are the main areas of criticism:

Death rates

The most obvious and tragic crisis of all. The UK has now recorded more than 16,000 coronavirus-related deaths in hospitals, and thousands more are believed to have occurred in care homes and elsewhere. This puts the UK on an apparent course to match the very high death rate of places like Italy. The government is, however, urging caution over direct comparisons given the different ways in which statistics are collected across nations, time lags in terms of the outbreak, and demographic differences. At Sunday’s Downing Street briefing, the deputy chief medical officer for England, Jenny Harries, said a meaningful comparison might not be possible until some months after the pandemic had eased.


The UK remains very low down the international league table for the proportion of the national population tested for the virus, a measure seen as crucial to tracking its spread and thus laying the ground for a gradual end to the lockdown. The government has already missed its target of 25,000 tests a day by mid-April, and remains some way short of its end-of-April goal of 100,000 a day; 21,626 were carried out on Saturday. There is also no sign of the promised millions of simpler antibody tests, as their accuracy remains dubious, even though the government bought 3.5m of one type.

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

This has proved of the most regularly difficult tasks for the government – getting enough PPE to not just hospitals, but also care homes and other settings like prisons and local authorities. On Friday, it emerged that guidance had changed to say NHS staff should use smaller, less effective aprons if, as seemed imminent, stocks of full gowns ran out – troubling news for hospital workers amid growing numbers of staff deaths.

A consignment of gowns was due to arrive as part of a shipment of PPE from Turkey on Sunday, but has been delayed. Ministers have pointedly declined to guarantee supplies as needed, saying the situation is very challenging given the massive global demand for supplies. In the meantime, staff have to decide whether to agree to work without proper protection.


On the one hand, despite initial fears, there has not yet been a massive shortage of the complex machines used to help people breathe as their lungs recover from the virus, but even after the UK’s target to secure 30,000 was downgraded to 18,000, that figure has still not been met. However, there has been political fallout over the apparent confusion about a plan to get private companies to design and build new models. A Financial Times story talked of companies being confused as to the brief, and of little progress being made. On Sunday the UK government published a highly unusual rebuttal of these claims.

Hospital capacity

As with ventilators, while there was initial panic at the idea of critical care beds being quickly overwhelmed, this has not been the case. The temporary acquisition of private spaces and the rapid construction of new sites has seen the number of these beds rise from about 4,100 in February to more than 5,500 now, with the occupancy rate falling from 81% to 58%. However, the overall numbers remain below what was pledged.

Political leadership

This might be the big one in terms of future focus. While Boris Johnson’s long absence due to coronavirus is bad luck, the news that he missed five meetings of the government’s emergency committee while taking a break from No 10 when the virus was first emerging in the UK has prompted condemnation. His ministers insist that Johnson remained in charge.

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