UK’s Johnson defends virus strategy as infections soar

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Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives at BBC Broadcasting House to appear on the Andrew Marr show, in London, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020. Johnson has defended his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, but warned that the country faces a bumpy winter ahead. Britain has Europes highest coronavirus death toll, at more than 42,000, and Johnsons Conservative government is facing criticism from all sides. Opponents say tougher social restrictions are needed to suppress a second pandemic wave. (Victoria Jones/PA via AP)

LONDON – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson defended his handling of the coronavirus pandemic on Sunday despite weeks of rising infections, but warned that the country faced a “bumpy” winter ahead.

Britain has Europe’s highest coronavirus death toll, at more than 42,400, and Johnson’s Conservative government is facing criticism from all sides. Opponents say tougher social restrictions are needed to suppress a second wave of COVID-19 that is already sweeping the country. But many in Johnson’s right-of-center party argue that restrictions must be eased to save the battered economy.

Johnson told the BBC the government had to strike a difficult balance and he couldn’t “take a course that could expose us to tens of thousands more deaths in very short order.”

“It is a moral imperative to save lives ... but on the other hand, we have to keep our economy moving. That is the balance that we are trying to strike,” he said.

Britain went into a national lockdown in March, with most businesses closed and all but essential travel barred. Restrictions began to be lifted in June as the pandemic tide receded. But like other European countries, daily new coronavirus infections began to rise again when pubs and restaurants reopened, children went back to school and students returned to university.

The U.K. is now under national restrictions on socializing, including a 10 p.m. curfew for bars and restaurants, and groups limited to six, with areas of high infection facing stricter local measures, which Johnson and other ministers have sometimes struggled to explain clearly. Critics say months of mixed messages and changes of advice on everything from wearing masks to whether or not to work from home has left people confused and exhausted.

A national test-and-trace program to find people who have been exposed to the virus has also had persistent problems, and is failing to reach more than a quarter of infected people’s contacts.

Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, accused the government of “serial incompetence.”