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Coronavirus: Raab admits UK must 'strive harder' over PPE supplies but denies 'slow' response

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People wear masks as they walk near Britain's Houses of Parliament as it goes back to work, London, Tuesday, April 21, 2020.
People wear masks as they walk near Britain's Houses of Parliament as it goes back to work, London, Tuesday, April 21, 2020.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth
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The British government has been too slow to react to the coronavirus pandemic in a number of ways, the new opposition Labour leader has alleged in parliament.

Sir Keir Starmer, taking part in his first Prime Minister's Questions as head of the main opposition party, challenged Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, standing in for Boris Johnson who is still recovering from COVID-19.

The House of Commons resumed business on the first day of the "virtual" Parliament. Only 50 MPs are allowed in the chamber at a time to respect social distancing, so some asked questions via video link.

The session comes amid controversy over the government's handling of the pandemic, and acute problems with the supply of essential protective medical equipment.

UK 'way behind other European countries'

The Labour leader challenged the government over the lack of available testing for coronavirus -- he said the UK was "way behind other European countries" -- and over supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Sir Keir Starmer asked how the government intended to reach its intended target of carrying out 100,000 tests a day by the end of this month in eight days' time, when the current number of tests this week was only 19,000 on Monday, and 18,000 on Tuesday.

Dominic Raab acknowledged that to reach the target needed an "exponential increase" in the final few days. He said the capacity was currently 40,000 tests a day and the government was working with a range of partners to reach the target.

On protective gear, Sir Keir said many front line workers were "scared" because they did not have the correct material, saying many were under pressure to improvise. Some British manufacturers had offered to make equipment but had not had a response from the government, he added.

'Massive international challenge'

The prime minister's deputy said it was a "massive international challenge" to meet the demand for PPE. A billion items had been delivered but the government had to "strive even harder".

But the Labour leader alleged that there was a "pattern emerging here".

"We were slow into lockdown. Slow on testing. Slow on protective equipment. And now slow to take up these offers from British firms," Sir Keir Starmer said.

Dominic Raab refuted opposition claims that the UK had been too slow to introduce the lockdown, saying the government had "followed the science" carefully.

"I don't accept his premise that we've been slow. We have been guided by the scientific advice, the chief scientific adviser, the chief medical officer at every step along this way," he added.

After a delay of several days, a Royal Air Force plane arrived back in the UK with a cargo of 84 tonnes of medical equipment from Turkey, including 400,000 surgical gowns which have been in extremely short supply.

Support for workers

Dominic Raab also rejected a call from the Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Ian Blackford, appearing via video link, for workers to receive a universal basic income -- arguing that many such as the self-employed were getting no support.

The foreign secretary said the government had a range of measures to help workers and was targeting those who needed it most.

UK legislators and most parliamentary staff were sent home in late March as part of a nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

UK 'not out of the woods yet'

The UK has recorded 759 new deaths from coronavirus in hospital, bringing the total to 18,100, according to the health ministry.

A total of 133,495 people have tested positive in the country, which is currently facing the "peak" of the epidemic, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said.

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab later told the daily government COVID-19 briefing: "We are making progress but we are not out of the woods yet."

He warned against easing lockdown restrictions too soon, saying that would bring a danger of a second spike in the virus and a second lockdown, further jeopardising health and the economy.

The briefing also brought a frank assessment from the Chief Medical Adviser Chris Whitty, who warned people would have to learn to live with coronavirus for some time. It will not be "eradicated or disappear" any time soon, he said.

He said while UK deaths were "flattening off", people should not expect a sudden decline, and thought the number of deaths in care homes had been underestimated.