UK coronavirus death toll to overtake Italy; pressure on exit strategy

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A member of the armed forces takes a swab to test for the novel coronavirus COVID-19 from a visitor to a drive-in testing facility at the Chessington World of Adventures Resort, in Chessington, southwest of London, on May 2, 2020.

ADRIAN DENNIS

The U.K. government is coming under increasing pressure to set out how and when it will reopen schools and shuttered parts of the economy, especially as its European counterparts lift further lockdown restrictions.

The U.K.’s death toll from the coronavirus is set to overtake that seen in Italy: As of Sunday, the U.K. has seen 28,446 deaths as a result of Covid-19, closely behind Italy’s 28,884 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

When it does overtake Italy, the U.K. will become the worst-hit country in Europe in terms of coronavirus fatalities. Given that the U.K. is seen to be a week or two behind Italy in its stage of the outbreak too, the death toll could be much higher. Italy reported 174 further deaths on Sunday, from the previous day, while the U.K. reported 315 new deaths.

Despite the grim death toll, calls are growing in the U.K. for the government to publish an exit strategy to lockdown, and a plan on how and when it will reopen schools. This comes as much of Europe and the U.S. start to lift restrictions and cautiously send children back to their classrooms.

There is growing speculation in the British media that the government is aiming to reopen primary schools in England by June 1. 

Speaking at the government’s daily coronavirus press conference on Sunday, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said that Prime Minister Boris Johnson will set out “how we will get back to work later this week.”

“His comprehensive plan will explain how we can get our economy moving, how we can get our children back to school, how we can travel to work more safely, and how we can make life in the workplace safer.’

He emphasized the government’s oft-repeated message that it wants to see that it’s “five tests” are met — that is, that the number of coronavirus cases are falling, that there is a sustained fall in the number of daily deaths, that the rate of infection is at a manageable level and that the NHS has the equipment it needs and that there is no risk of a second peak.

The government has already come under fire for its response to the coronavirus outbreak with criticism over its testing regime, and personal protective equipment for health service workers. 

The U.K. was slower to shutter its economy and lockdown public life than its European neighbors, imposing a lockdown several weeks after Italy, on March 23. But as countries hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic have started to re-open, pressure is now on the U.K. government to follow suit. Or to at least to set out its plan.

Measures being considered to allow workplaces to reopen were reported by the BBC on Monday. It said that a draft government plan it had seen urged employers to minimize the number of employees using equipment, stagger shift times and maximize home-working. Additional hygiene procedures, physical screens and the use of protective equipment should be considered where maintaining a distance of 2 meters between workers is impossible, the document reportedly said.

Speculation and leaked reports regarding the U.K.’s exit strategy come as the rest of Europe gradually reopens its economy,

In Germany, for example, smaller shops were allowed to re-open several weeks ago, as long as strict hygiene and social distancing measures were in place, and some schools were allowed to reopen Monday. Spain has allowed children and adults outside to exercise this past weekend after weeks of home confinement, although schools will stay closed until September.

Italy has allowed some smaller stores to reopen and has also lifted further restrictions Monday, allowing visits to relatives and parks. It also reopened parts of its manufacturing and construction sectors Monday and is now letting restaurants provide a takeaway service. Italy is also only allowing children back to school in September, however.

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