LONDON – The U.K. held a minute's silence Tuesday for all front-line workers who have died from the coronavirus, as the government extended its testing program and concerns mounted about the rising death toll in care homes.
As clocks struck 11 a.m., senior political leaders, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, joined hospital and nursing home staff in observing the silence. London's transport networks came to a halt as workers honored colleagues who have died from COVID-19, and the bells of Westminster Abbey went silent.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said 85 front-line workers in the National Health Service had died from the virus, while another 19 have died in care homes.
“These are the nation's fallen heroes and we will remember them,” Hancock said at the government's daily briefing.
The minute's silence had been campaigned for by the Unison union, the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal of College of Nursing, many of whose members have complained about insufficient supplies of personal protective equipment.
“An even greater task now remains — to stop more joining the tragic number of those who have died," said Donna Kinnair, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing.
Johnson, who returned to work Monday after recovering from COVID-19, has said he won't risk a second peak in the virus by relaxing lockdown restrictions too soon, while acknowledging that the country was coming out of the “first phase of this conflict.”
The government has set five tests for an easing of restrictions from their current end-date of May 7, including “a sustained and consistent” fall in the daily death rate.
Over the past couple of weeks, it has become clear that daily coronavirus-related deaths in U.K. hospitals have trended lower while the number being hospitalized, particularly in London, has fallen. On Tuesday, Hancock said another 586 people died in U.K. hospitals, taking the total to 21,678.
Those figures don't include deaths outside hospitals such as care homes. Hancock said more comprehensive daily figures will be published from Wednesday.
Earlier, the Office for National Statistics revealed that 22,351 people in England and Wales died in the week ending April 17. That was the highest since comparable records began in 1993 and more than double the rolling five-year average.
In its analysis of death certificates, which take longer to compile than deaths recorded in hospitals, the statistics agency said the coronavirus was mentioned as a cause of death in 8,758 cases, nearly 40% of the total.
It also said 4,316 deaths involving COVID-19 had been registered up to April 17 outside of hospitals with 3,096 in care homes. The equivalent figure for hospital deaths over that period was 14,796.
Provisional figures since April 17 provided with the assistance of a regulator, the Care Quality Commission, point to the daily death rate in care homes in England and Wales heading towards the rate in hospitals.
Hancock said the government's testing program was being expanded, including to all staff and residents in care homes whether they show symptoms or not. Anyone over 65, and all workers who must leave their homes to work, are also eligible if they show virus-like symptoms.
Hancock also said the U.K. government position had not changed on face coverings, saying there is “weak science” on their use. Earlier, the Scottish government recommended their use for shopping and travel, the latest point of divergence between the U.K. government and the devolved administration.
Sylvia Hui contributed to this story.