UK govt under fire over virus advice as deaths pass 20,000

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A man walks on Millennium Bridge wearing a protective mask, as the lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak continues, in London, Saturday, April 25, 2020.(AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

LONDON – Britain’s government on Saturday defended the independence of the scientists advising it on the coronavirus after it emerged that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s controversial chief aide had attended meetings of the group.

Criticism of Johnson’s Conservative government mounted as the U.K. became the fifth country in the world to report 20,000 virus-related deaths and counting.

The government said Saturday that 20,319 people with COVID-19 have died in British hospitals, an increase of 813 from the death toll reported the day before. The figure does not include deaths in nursing homes, which are likely to number in the thousands.

Scientists say the U.K. has reached the peak of the pandemic but is not yet out of danger. The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 is declining, and the number of daily deaths peaked on April 8.

As fears recede that the health system will be overwhelmed, opponents are stepping up their attacks on Johnson’s Conservative government over shortages of protective equipment for medical workers and a lack of testing for the virus.

After a report in The Guardian, the government confirmed that Johnson adviser Dominic Cummings had attended several meetings of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, or SAGE, and listened to discussions. But it denied the Guardian’s claim that Cummings — who is not a scientist — was a member of the group.

Cummings is a contentious figure, a self-styled political disrupter who was appointed to a key role by Johnson after masterminding the victorious “leave” campaign during Britain’s 2016 referendum on European Union membership.

The government said “SAGE provides independent scientific advice to the government. Political advisers have no role in this.”