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British government under fire, accused of slow response to pandemic

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LONDON: The British government came under sustained pressure over all aspects of its coronavirus response yesterday as Members of Parliament got their first major opportunity in a month to hold it to account.

With the latest hospital death toll from the virus rising to 16,272 in England alone and persistent reports of a lack of protective equipment for staff in hospitals and care homes, stand-in leader Dominic Raab faced a barrage of tough questions.

"Something's going wrong," opposition leader Keir Starmer said during the weekly Prime Minister's Questions session, where Mr Raab was deputising for Prime Minister Boris Johnson who is recovering from Covid-19.

"There's a pattern emerging. We were slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on protective equipment and are slow to take up these offers (to supply equipment) from British firms," said Mr Starmer, the new leader of the Labour Party.

Mr Johnson initially stopped short of imposing stringent controls seen elsewhere in Europe as the coronavirus spread, but he later closed down the country when projections showed a quarter of a million people could die in Britain.

He faced a call for an independent inquiry into his and the government's handling of the outbreak after ministers struggled to explain shocking death rates, limited testing and reported shortages of protective kit in the places where they are most needed.

"Will the government commit itself now, for the future, to an independent judge-led inquiry into how this crisis has been handled?" asked Mr Ed Davey, leader of the Liberal Democrats, a smaller opposition party.

Mr Raab rejected his call.

"I have to say I won't take up his offer of committing to a public inquiry. I think there are definitely lessons to be learnt and when we get through this crisis it will be important that we take stock," he said.

Some MPs were present in the chamber, at safe distances from one another, while others participated via video link.

On reported shortages of protective equipment, Mr Raab made a limited concession that more needed to be done.

He said: "We recognise... we have got to strive even harder in this incredibly difficult and competitive international environment to source the equipment." - REUTERS