UK not thinking of easing virus lockdown measures yet: minister

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain is not considering lifting its lockdown imposed almost four weeks ago to control the coronavirus outbreak given “deeply worrying” increases in the death toll, a senior minister said on Sunday.

Britain is at or near the peak of a health crisis in which more than 15,000 people have died - the fifth highest national death toll of a pandemic linked to at least 150,000 deaths worldwide.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said a Buzzfeed report that the government was considering lifting the lockdown in phases over the coming months was not correct.

“The facts and the advice are clear at the moment that we should not be thinking of lifting these restrictions yet,” Gove told Sky News.

With hospitals under strain, health workers have criticised the government’s advice that personal protective equipment (PPE) worn while treating patients infected with coronavirus could be re-used, as supplies run low across the country.

An 84-tonne delivery of PPE from Turkey, which ministers had said would arrive on Sunday, has been delayed, a government official said.

The government hopes the consignment will arrive on Monday, education minister Gavin Williamson told reporters.

Britain's Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove speaks at a digital news conference on the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in 10 Downing Street in London, Britain April 4, 2020. Pippa Fowles/10 Downing Street/Handout via REUTERS

The latest data show 16,060 people have died in British hospitals after testing positive for the novel coronavirus, a rise of 596 from data published on Saturday.

While that marked the smallest increase in almost two weeks, figures published over weekends usually show smaller-than-average increases in the death toll, and these daily figures do not include deaths in the wider community.

England’s deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries told reporters on Sunday it was too early to call a peak in terms of deaths, although she added that the trends were starting to move in the right direction.

A further 2,500 had died in care homes during the week to April 13, according to the National Care Forum, a representative body for the adult social care sector.

“One of the things that is deeply worrying and concerning is the high level of deaths,” Gove said.

“The evidence suggests that the rate of infection and the death rate is flattening, but we’re not absolutely certain that we are yet on a downward trajectory.”

Gove described as “grotesque” a Sunday Times story that said Prime Minister Boris Johnson had skipped five crisis meetings held to address the coronavirus pandemic early in the outbreak.

“The prime minister took all the major decisions. Nobody can say that the prime minister wasn’t throwing heart and soul into fighting this virus,” he said, adding that the story overall was “slightly off-beam”.

Jonathan Ashworth, a lawmaker for the opposition Labour Party, said this comment was “possibly the weakest rebuttal of a detailed expose in British political history”.

The health ministry said 21,626 tests for the novel coronavirus were conducted on Saturday - still far short of the government’s target of 100,000 per day by the end of the month.

Gove said he was confident that the government would hit the target.

Reporting by Andy Bruce; Editing by Alex Richardson, Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Stephen Addison