A woman wearing a protection mask to protect against coronavirus walks over Westminster Bridge in London, Wednesday April 22, 2020 during the COVID-19 lockdown. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

UK criticized for slow testing, lack of protective gear

April 22, 2020 - 9:40 am

LONDON (AP) — The British government came under sustained criticism Wednesday for being slow in ramping up its testing for coronavirus and for failing to deliver enough personal protective equipment to front-line medical workers in hospitals and nursing homes.

The political uproar came as a delayed Royal Air Force plane carrying an uncertain amount of medical protective equipment finally arrived Wednesday at Brize Norton in central England.

Britain has seen 18,100 people die in hospitals after contracting the virus, with potentially thousands more virus-related deaths of people at home or in elderly care homes.

Keir Starmer, the new leader of the opposition Labour Party, told lawmakers Wednesday that a “pattern is emerging” in which the Conservative government has been too slow in putting the country into a virus lockdown, in testing people for the virus and in getting critical protective gear for medical workers.

He spoke in the first partially-online Prime Minister’s Questions session in the House of Commons as U.K. lawmakers tried to balance between doing their jobs and still social distancing.

Labour lawmaker Barry Sheerman went further, slamming the government's handling of the pandemic as “shambolic.”

The questions are coming as Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the country's most high-profile COVID-19 patient, convalesces at his country retreat following his week-long stay in a hospital. Johnson has been away from the front-line of the crisis for nearly four weeks after he first tested positive.

“You can’t have a void of decision-making," former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair told ITV television.

Blair said he “completely” sympathizes with Johnson's plight but said hugely important decisions have to be “taken now,'' including ramping up testing so Britain can safely exit its coronavirus lockdown, which is scheduled to end on May 7.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who has been sitting in for Johnson over the past few weeks, said the government still aims to conduct 100,000 coronavirus tests a day by the end of this month — even though it is only handling about 20,000 tests a day now.

“With a project like this, it does require an exponential increase in the final days and the final week,” Raab told a slimmed-down chamber, where only 50 of the House's 650 lawmakers were able to attend and up to 120 could participate via video.

The government has faced acute criticism over the lack of protective gear f or front-line workers, a topic highlighted by the confusion surrounding the flight from Istanbul over the past three days.

The plane, which landed in the middle of the night Wednesday, had protective gear on board, including surgical gowns —- but it's unclear how much. Two other British planes are on stand-by to pick up further medical supplies from Turkey.

Raab told lawmakers 69 workers in the National Health Service have died after testing positive for COVID-19. Health Secretary Matt Hancock later said 15 social care workers have also died.

Hancock insisted the government has been following the best scientific advice ever since the coronavirus first emerged. He claimed the government was ahead of its testing plan but will widen opportunities for testing over the coming days with drive-through centers and mobile units.

“This is one area we’ve had our foot on the gas,” Hancock said, adding that the government believes the U.K. epidemic is at its peak.

Scientists said Tuesday that Britain experienced its peak of deaths on April 8. The nation hit its highest reported daily virus toll in hospitals two days later, at 980 dead.

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Danica Kirka in London contributed to this story.

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Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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