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UK govt accused of slow response to virus outbreak

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London (AFP)

The new leader of Britain's main opposition Labour party on Wednesday accused the government of being slow in its coronavirus response, as lawmakers met for a virtual session in parliament.

In his first chance to question the government since being elected Labour leader earlier this month, Keir Starmer said there was "a significant gap between promise and delivery" in how ministers were handling the crisis.

The criticism came as the government faces increased scrutiny of various aspects of its response, from ordering social distancing measures weeks later than European neighbours to its provision of safety equipment to frontline health workers.

"There's a pattern emerging here: we were slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on protective equipment," Starmer said, as he also questioned Britain's sluggish testing regime.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who is deputising for Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he recovers after being hospitalised for COVID-19, insisted ministers had been guided by scientific and medical advisers "at every step along this way".

"I don't accept his premise that we've been slow," he said.

"If he thinks he knows better than they do, with the benefit of hindsight, then that's his decision. But that is not the way we've proceeded."

- 'Political decision' -

Britain is one of the countries worst-hit by the pandemic, with 17,337 deaths in hospital, according to the latest figures.

But the real figure could be much higher as the UK only gives details for the deaths of people in hospital who have tested positive for the virus.

The government ordered a national lockdown on March 23 but has seen mounting criticism about the extent of screening for the virus and for refusing to detail an exit strategy from the social distancing regime.

Ministers have also become embroiled in a simmering row about London's delay in joining a Brussels scheme to source medical equipment, and whether it was a political decision following Britain's decision to leave the European Union.

The government has denied this and said any delay was due to "communication problems".

On Tuesday, the Foreign Office's top civil servant, Simon McDonald, made an extraordinary U-turn by withdrawing his own claim to a parliamentary committee that the country did not take part because of a "political decision".

He later wrote to the foreign affairs committee to say his evidence was "incorrect".

The smaller opposition Liberal Democrats have called for an independent inquiry into the government's response to the crisis.

In news which could potentially lift some pressure, a Royal Air Force plane landed in Britain from Turkey Wednesday after being sent to collect a shipment of equipment, including 400,000 badly-needed surgical gowns.

Meanwhile, Health Secretary Matt Hancock doubled down on a target to test 100,000 people daily by the end of next week.

"As we reach the peak and as we bring the number of new cases down, so we will introduce contact tracing at large scale," he told MPs.

Social distancing rules have forced parliament to take unprecedented measures to limit the numbers of lawmakers in the chamber for the weekly prime minister's questions session.

Up to 50 MPs were permitted to attend in person while some 120 more took part remotely through the Zoom video-conferencing platform.

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