The United Kingdom has become the first country in Europe to record more than 100,000 coronavirus-related deaths, according to official figures, with the government under pressure over its response to the pandemic.
The UK has the fifth-highest toll globally – after the United States, Brazil, India and Mexico – and reported a further 1,631 deaths and 20,089 new cases on Tuesday, with critics accusing the government of an apparent slow initial response to the COVID-19 crisis.
The 100,162 deaths registered are higher than the country’s civilian death toll in World War II and twice the number killed in the 1940-1941 Blitz bombing campaign, although the total population was smaller then.
“I am deeply sorry for every life that has been lost and, of course, as prime minister, I take full responsibility for everything that the government has done,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.
“What I can tell you is that we truly did everything we could, and continue to do everything we can, to minimise loss of life and to minimise suffering,” he added during a briefing.
Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons, reporting from Bradford, said Johnson’s comments were unlikely “to calm down those who feel he was too late every step of the way in taking action; he was behind the curve”.
Earlier this month, Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, one of the oldest and most prestigious medical journals in the world, told Al Jazeera the UK was struggling to contain the pandemic because its government “has steadfastly refused to follow the science, despite claims that it is doing so”.
“The lessons from the science have been that when there is a rise in infections, you need to clamp down immediately to suppress transmission to reduce the prevalence of infection in the community. But at every stage, the government has delayed and delayed and delayed locking down, with the result that the virus has got out of control,” Horton said.
“The result of that is increased hospitalisations and deaths. This has been entirely preventable if the government had acted with more decisiveness, and sooner.”
Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer, who has repeatedly accused Johnson of being too slow to respond to the pandemic, said the prime minister’s indecision had cost lives and worsened the economic effect.
Johnson, who contracted COVID-19 himself and ended up in intensive care, has defended his record, saying it is easy to find fault when looking back.
England, by far the most populous of the four nations that make up the UK, re-entered a national lockdown on January 5, which includes the closure of pubs, restaurants, non-essential shops and schools to most pupils. Further travel restrictions have been introduced as the government battles to speed up vaccination delivery and keep new, more transmissible variants of the virus at bay.
Ministers have been debating new measures for the UK border to prevent the spread of the new variants, with Johnson reportedly rejecting calls by Home Minister Priti Patel and Health Secretary Matt Hancock for a temporary closure of the country’s borders, according to media reports.
Instead, Patel is expected to announce in parliament on Wednesday limited hotel quarantine for travellers from high-risk countries, according to the Guardian newspaper.
In December, the UK became the first country in the world to approve Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine and has set itself the task of offering jabs to everyone above the age of 70, those who are clinically vulnerable, front-line health and social care workers and older adults in care homes by the middle of next month.
Up to Monday, a total of 6,853,327 people had received a first dose and 472,446 a second dose.
The government has said the vaccination rate and the success of the vaccinations are key to being able to ease restrictions as the UK battles with the highest number of deaths per 100,000 people in the world, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
“Unfortunately we’re going to see quite a lot more deaths over the next few weeks before the effects of the vaccines begin to be felt,” Chris Whitty, the UK’s chief medical officer said.
New variants have also alarmed scientists, and Johnson has warned the prospect of a “vaccine-busting” variant could mean lockdown measures are needed for longer.
“My thoughts are with each and every person who has lost a loved one – behind these heart-breaking figures are friends, families and neighbours,” Secretary of State for Health Matt Hancock said on Tuesday.
“I know how hard the last year has been, but I also know how strong the British public’s determination is and how much we have all pulled together to get through this.”