George Eustice, the environment secretary, told Sky News it was unclear for now but it “may well be” the case that the UK will have the highest death toll in Europe.
He said: “We’ve been on similar trajectories to France and Italy. It may well be that we are, who knows, we don’t know that at the moment. For now we just need to focus on managing this pandemic.”
The UK has so far recorded 161,145 positive cases of Covid-19, with 21,678 hospital deaths as of Tuesday. But the number is expected to be far higher when deaths at care homes are included, where more than 5,000 deaths have been linked to the disease.
A spokeswoman for the World Health Organisation (WHO) said it would not be fair “at this stage ... to make a judgement” on whether the UK would come out of the crisis with the worst death toll in Europe, but it was clear the outbreak here was “horrendous”.
Dr Margaret Harris, spokeswoman for the WHO, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We won’t really know who had the highest rates, what really went on, until after this is over and we can analyse it properly.
“Clearly you are having a horrendous outbreak and making a tremendous effort to care for everybody but at this stage it wouldn’t be fair to make a judgment one way or another.”
The government will begin publishing the number of deaths in care homes alongside hospital deaths from Wednesday, in an effort to “bring as much transparency as possible”, said health secretary Matt Hancock. It has faced widespread criticism for not including care home and community deaths in its daily statistics, unlike some other countries.
During Tuesday’s daily briefing, Mr Hancock said testing will be expanded to all care home residents and staff, regardless of whether they have Covid-19 symptoms, and all those aged 65 and over with symptoms and their households.
The UK’s national testing co-ordinator, Professor John Newton, said he expects a “substantial number” of people living in care homes will have died, ahead of the release of the figures today.
Speaking on LBC, Prof Newton said: “We have always known that a proportion of cases have been in care homes.
“Sadly coronavirus affects older people a lot more... There will be a substantial number [of deaths].”
He added the Government is “massively increasing” the number of tests carried out on those living and working in care homes.
In a separate interview, Prof Newton also told Today that he is “confident” the 100,000 daily testing target will be met on Thursday.
He said: “We are pretty confident we will hit that target. It puts us really right up there with countries like Germany, so we need that now but we need that for the future as well.”
There will be a lag in receiving the data but “by the end of the week we will know whether we have reached that target”, he added.
Additional reporting by agencies
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