LONDON (Reuters/AP) -- The United Kingdom’s COVID-19 death toll has reached nearly 43,000, underlining the country’s status as the worst-hit in Europe and raising more questions about Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of the crisis.
New figures for England and Wales brought the death toll to at least 42,990, a Reuters tally showed, including earlier data from Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well recent hospital deaths in England.
Tuesday’s numbers from the Office for National Statistics painted a grim picture in care homes, more than a third of which have been stricken by the novel coronavirus.
Deaths in care homes across the United Kingdom topped 10,000 as of May 8, although the increase has slowed over the last couple of weeks.
Comparisons with other countries are tricky, but the data confirmed Britain was among those hit worst by the pandemic, which has killed more than 317,000 worldwide.
Such a high UK death toll increases the pressure on Johnson, who says the government is following scientific advice. Opposition parties say he was slow to introduce testing and provide protective equipment to health workers, and that his policy left care homes exposed.
In March, Britain’s chief scientific adviser said keeping deaths below 20,000 would be a "good outcome”. In April, Reuters reported the government’s worst-case scenario was 50,000 deaths.
Unlike the daily death toll announced by the government, Tuesday’s ONS figures include suspected deaths from COVID-19.
Excess deaths across the UK are now close to 55,000, ONS statistician Nick Stripe told the BBC.
An influential group of British lawmakers on Tuesday accused Johnson’s government of failing to conduct enough tests for the new coronavirus, saying the lapse helped COVID-19 cut a deadly swath through UK nursing homes.
As official statistics revealed more than 11,000 coronavirus deaths in British nursing homes, the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee said "testing capacity has been inadequate for most of the pandemic so far.”
In a letter to the prime minister, committee chairman Greg Clark said Britain’s limited testing capacity "drove strategy, rather than strategy driving capacity.”
UK authorities initially sought to trace and test everyone who had been in contact with people infected with the coronavirus. But they abandoned that strategy in mid-March as the number of infections overwhelmed the country’s testing resources.
Johnson’s Conservative government has faced growing criticism as Britain suffers one of the world’s worst coronavirus death tolls. The government’s official tally of deaths among people who tested positive for the virus stands at 34,796, second only to the U.S. When suspected as well as confirmed cases are added, the toll is well over 40,000.
Clark, a lawmaker from the governing Conservative Party, said the "pivotal” decision in March to stop
testing for the coronavirus outside of hospitals meant that nursing home residents and staff weren’t tested "at a time when the spread of the virus was at its most rampant.”
The lawmakers said that the failure of Public Health England, the body responsible for testing, "to publish the evidence on which its testing policy was based is unacceptable for a decision that may have had such significant consequences.”
Figures released Tuesday also revealed the economic toll of the pandemic in Britain. The statistics office said that unemployment claims in Britain jumped 69% in April, after the country went into lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Jobless claims surged by 856,000 to 2.1 million in April as compared to the month before.