Coronavirus: Japan sees rise in infections as new cases drop in South Korea

South Korea reported just eight more cases of the coronavirus on Sunday, the first time a daily increase has dropped to single digits in about two months.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the additional figures raised the country’s total to 10,661, including 234 deaths. It said 8,042 people have recovered and been released from quarantine and 12,243 others were undergoing tests to determine whether they had contracted the virus.

“We must not loosen our guard until the last confirmed patient is recovered.” President Moon Jae-in said.

South Korea’s caseload has been waning in recent weeks since it recorded hundreds of new cases every day between late February and early March, mostly in the southeastern city of Daegu and nearby areas.

Despite the recent downward trend, South Korean officials have warned about the possibility of a broader “quiet spread” with people easing up on social distancing.

Moon urged South Koreans to support his government in saving jobs and revitalizing the economy.

“Government efforts alone aren’t enough amid a grave world economic crisis. Public solidarity and co-operation is also needed to revive our economy,” he said.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

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Hundreds more infected in Japan

Japan’s Health Ministry confirmed 568 new cases of the coronavirus, raising the nation’s total to 11,073, with 174 deaths.

The actual number of infections is believed to be higher as Japan is only starting to expand its testing capabilities by setting up additional testing centres in Tokyo and elsewhere.

It allows primary care doctors to send suspected patients directly to testing stations.

Filthy cloth masks in Japan

Japan’s Health Ministry said it has received reports that some of the cloth masks it is distributing to households are dirty.

Reports from 80 municipalities say the masks came with stains, dust and other contamination.

The dirty masks were among half a million that the government started sending to pregnant women as a priority last week. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced on April 1 the plan to mail two cloth masks each to 50 million households in Japan amid dire shortage of surgical masks.

The Health Ministry urged mask makers to fix the contamination problem and municipal officials to visually inspect the masks before mailing them.

More sailors test positive in Taiwan

Two dozen crew members of a Taiwanese naval ship have tested positive for the new coronavirus after returning from a nearly two-month training mission that took them to the Pacific island nation of Palau.

Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control said Sunday that 21 more cases had been identified from a refuelling ship, on top of three reported Saturday.

More than 700 officers and sailors from the refuelling ship and the two warships that took part in the mission are in quarantine for 14 days.

The CDC said that a Taiwanese student returning from the United States had also tested positive. That brought the total for Sunday to 22, an upward spike for the self-governing island.

McDonald’s closes Singapore restaurants

McDonald’s is suspending all operations in Singapore for two weeks after seven of its employees tested positive for the coronavirus.

The fast food giant said in a Facebook post that it decided to follow the Health Ministry’s advise to shut down until May 4, when Singapore’s partial lockdown ends.

It said in would continue to pay the salaries of 10,000 employees working in more than 135 outlets across the city-state. Singapore reported 596 new infections on Sunday to raise its total to 6,588, including 11 deaths.

The government has made it mandatory for people to wear masks outside their homes and imposed strict social distancing measures.

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Bogota's poor, homeless get some help amid quarantine hardship

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Some of the neediest residents of Colombia’s capital Bogota have started receiving food donations, while dozens living on the street were given a chance to shower and change clothes, as the city rides out a five-week lockdown to contain the coronavirus.

Residents of the Andean city, home to about seven million, had set tires on fire and blocked roads in isolated Thursday protests to demand help during the quarantine.

The government has budgeted 18 trillion pesos (about $4.43 billion) to shore up an inadequate healthcare system and fund welfare payments during the lockdown that runs until April 27.

But many families who get by in informal industries like street selling, construction and recycling are now cut off from work and are scrambling to make ends meet. Many say they have received no aid at all.

Others have been luckier.

On Friday, army soldiers in gloves and masks distributed boxes of rice, beans, sugar, salt, canned meat, toilet paper and bottled water to residents of the Egipto neighbourhood, whose steep streets wind up the skirts of the Andes.

“I’m so grateful to the army because they are the only ones who have gone house to house,” said a tearful Luz Maria Piraquive, 61. “This arrived just at the moment when we’re lowest on supplies.”

Major Johan Alzate, operations head for the presidential guard, said: “We are coming to a community with many needs … joining efforts to try to mitigate some of the emergency that we are living.”

Meanwhile, the mayor’s office offered showers, toiletries, changes of clothes and meals to people living on the street – some of whom have been rendered homeless due to the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’ve been sleeping on the street for seven days,” said 42-year-old Hamilton Mosquera, who lost his job as a club doorman when the government shut down nightlife last month.

The coronavirus has killed over 150 people in Colombia and infected nearly 3,500. Giving people a way to shower and change will prevent them from becoming vectors, city officials said.

“We started these self-care sessions, which is a place where we put in showers, bring clothes, bio-safety supplies like alcohol, antibacterial gel and food,” said Daniel Mora, from the city’s social integration department.

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Latest on the spread of the coronavirus around the world

(Reuters) – Reported cases of the coronavirus have crossed 2.23 million globally and 151,657 people have died, according to a Reuters tally as of 0200 GMT on Saturday.

DEATHS AND INFECTIONS

* For an interactive graphic tracking the global spread, open tmsnrt.rs/3aIRuz7 in an external browser.

* For a U.S.-focused tracker with state-by-state and county map, open tmsnrt.rs/2w7hX9T in an external browser.

AMERICAS

* The U.S. coronavirus crisis took a sharp political turn as President Donald Trump lashed out at four Democratic governors over their handling of the pandemic after having conceded that states bear ultimate control of restrictions to contain the outbreak.

* U.S. coronavirus deaths topped 35,400 on Friday, rising by more than 2,000 for the fourth day in a row, according to a Reuters tally, as some states announced timetables for lifting restrictions aimed at blunting the pandemic.

* Better-than-expected social distancing practices have led an influential research model to lower its projected U.S. coronavirus death toll by 12%, while predicting some states may be able to safely begin easing restrictions as early as May 4.

* Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei said a large number of migrants on a deportation flight to Guatemala from the United States this week were infected with the coronavirus, adding that U.S. authorities had confirmed a dozen cases.

* The United States has asked China to revise new export quality control rules for protective equipment needed in the outbreak so they are not an obstacle to timely supplies, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department said.

* New York Governor Andrew Cuomo launched a blistering attack on President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus crisis, accusing him of “passing the buck” to the states and favoring big business over communities hardest hit.

EUROPE

* Deaths from the COVID-19 epidemic in Italy rose by 575 on Friday, up from 525 the day before, while the number of new cases declined slightly and scientists warned that infections were now mainly happening among family members.

* Doctors and health workers criticised the British government for suggesting that gowns used to protect them while treating coronavirus patients could be re-used, as supplies run low across the country.

* Russia said its death toll from the novel coronavirus had risen to 313, an overnight increase of 40, as it posted a new record daily jump in new cases.

* France said there was no evidence so far of a link between the new coronavirus and the work of the P4 research laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the current pandemic started.

ASIA-PACIFIC

* Japan, alarmed by rising coronavirus deaths and the spectre of the collapse of the medical system, is scrambling to expand testing with drive-through facilities and general practitioners helping to collect samples.

* Singapore’s health ministry confirmed 942 more coronavirus infections, a new daily record, the vast majority of which are among migrant workers living in dormitories.

* China’s National Health Commission reported 27 new confirmed coronavirus cases on April 17, up from 26 the day earlier, according to data published on Saturday.

* Taiwan will put 700 navy sailors into quarantine after three cases of the new coronavirus were confirmed among sailors who had been on a goodwill mission to the Pacific island state of Palau, the government said on Saturday.

MIDDLE EAST AND AFRICA

* The Nigerian president’s chief of staff, Abba Kyari, died on Friday after contracting the new coronavirus, two presidency spokesmen said on Twitter.

* Iran’s death toll from the new coronavirus rose by 73 in the previous 24 hours to reach 5,031 on Saturday, health ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpour said on state TV.

* Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti said Muslim prayers during Ramadan and the Eid al-Fitr feast should be performed at home if the outbreak continues.

* Israel is heading off shortages of disposable surgical masks by mass-producing washable versions sized to fit everyone from children to bearded men.

* African leaders, the IMF and the World Bank appealed for rapid international action to help African countries respond to the coronavirus pandemic that will cause the continent’s economy to shrink by 1.25% in 2020, the worst reading on record.

* Dubai has extended by one week a 24-hour-a-day curfew imposed as part of a sterilisation drive to control the spread of the coronavirus, the government said in a Twitter post.

ECONOMIC FALLOUT

* Canada will invest C$2.5 billion ($1.8 billion) in measures to help the hard-hit oil and gas industry during the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed 1,250 people in the country, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.

* Global stocks rallied on President Donald Trump’s plans to revive the coronavirus-hit U.S. economy and a report about a clinical trial for a potential drug to treat COVID-19.

* Gold dropped about 2% on Friday after President Donald Trump’s new guidelines to re-open the U.S. economy and encouraging early data related to a potential COVID-19 treatment drove investors towards riskier assets.

* Some moderate Democrats key to their party’s control of the U.S. House of Representatives are urging Speaker Nancy Pelosi to move quickly to replenish a fund to help small businesses hurt by the coronavirus pandemic, saying other party priorities can wait.

* China’s economy contracted for the first time on record in the first quarter as the coronavirus shut down factories and shopping malls and put millions out of work.

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Coronavirus: Prison early release scheme halted after inmates let out too early

A programme to free prisoners early to help jails cope with coronavirus has been paused after six inmates were released by mistake.

The offenders were candidates for early release but were let out too soon after an “administrative error”.

After the error was spotted, they all “returned compliantly to prison”, a Ministry of Justice (MoJ) spokeswoman said.

“We have strengthened the administrative processes around the scheme to make sure this does not happen again,” she added.

Inmates were let out of two open Category D prisons in Gloucestershire and Derbyshire, Leyhill and Sudbury, along with one inmate from the Isis Category C prison and young offenders institute in southeast London.

Shadow justice secretary David Lammy said the error was “deeply troubling” and called for it to be “quickly understood and remedied”.

He said in a statement: “These errors must not be used as an excuse for inaction in the face of an oncoming public health disaster.

“If the MoJ does not take sufficient steps to move towards single-cell occupancy, it is not only inmates and prison officers who will be put at risk.”

The government early release scheme is designed to avoid thousands of often cell-sharing inmates becoming infected with coronavirus.

It was paused on Thursday and is due to resume next week.

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1,200 part-time Hamilton city employees now on hiatus, leaf and yard waste collection to resume

It’s not officially being called a layoff, but Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger says the scheduling of 1,200 non-essential, part-time employees is being discontinued until further notice.

Eisenberger made the announcement as part of an Emergency Operations Centre update on Friday afternoon.

He says the change will save the city $250,000 per week, adding that affected employees have all been notified and will be eligible for financial assistance that the federal government has put forward.

The mayor describes it as a “very difficult decision to make,” but adds that “the reality is we have nothing for them to do at the moment.”

Affected employees include school crossing guards, some recreation centre employees and those who supervise children’s activities in city parks.

The cost-saving measure comes two days after a report was presented to councillors by General Manager of FInance Mike Zegarac, suggesting that the city faces a $22.9 million deficit based on projections to the end of May as a result of COVID-19.

The mayor announced during Friday’s update that a reduced form of leaf and yard waste collection will resume on Monday.

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The collection of leaf and yard waste was temporarily discontinued several weeks ago because of concerns about staffing levels with the waste management division, but Eisenberger says the city has decided there’s “an ability to collect some based on the resources we have” and will resume offering the service to residents every second week.

Starting April 20, yard waste will be collected from homes in Glanbrook, Ancaster, Dundas, Flamborough and Stoney Creek.

The following week, beginning April 27, it will be collected from homes across Hamilton Mountain and the lower city.

He stresses that it will not happen “on a given day, it will be sometime when they can get to it, but it will happen.” Eisenberger acknowledges “we’ve had many calls on this issue.”

Meanwhile, Victoria Day fireworks at Dundas Driving Park have officially been cancelled for 2020.

Mayor Eisenberger also says that a state of emergency has now officially been declared in Hamilton to allow for the redeployment of staff, if necessary.

Eisenberger stresses that the city has redeployed staff with the cooperation of its unions during the pandemic.

He describes the emergency order as a “technical matter” should the city run into difficulties, that would give it “the overriding authority to make the changes as required.”

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Polish health minister says postal vote only option for two years

WARSAW (Reuters) – Poland’s health minister said on Friday that elections scheduled for May 10 could go ahead safely despite the coronavirus pandemic if they were done by postal vote.

A normal voting process could only take place without the threat of widespread contagion from the virus after a vaccine had been found, which could be two years away, Health Minister Lukasz Szumowski.

It remains unclear whether the election will go ahead, with some in the ruling conservative alliance advocating constitutional change to extend the president’s term by two years, others advocating a postal vote, and the opposition calling for a state of emergency.

“The only form which I can recommend as health minister from a medical perspective is a postal vote, because it minimises contact between people,” Szumowski told reporters.

“The only date that would be safe for such a large event as a presidential election would be a time when there is a vaccine, and that is a year and a half to two years away.”

Szumowski said that from a medical perspective there were no better or worse dates for holding a postal vote.

As of Friday evening Poland, a country of 38 million people, had reported 8379 cases of the coronavirus and 332 deaths.

The presidential election is crucial for the ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party’s hopes of being able to implement its agenda as the president holds the right to veto laws. Incumbent Andrzej Duda is a PiS ally.

Duda said on Friday he would not object to changing the constitution to extend his term if that was the will of parliament.

“If the Polish parliament decides on such a solution… I of course will agree to such a solution, I am not going to argue with the will of parliament,” he said during a question and answer session with the public conducted on social media.

Changing the constitution requires a two thirds majority, and therefore would need opposition support. Opposition politicians have said the elections can be delayed without constitutional change.

Tomasz Grodzki, the speaker of the opposition-held upper house of parliament the Senate who is himself a surgeon, was critical of Szumowski’s advice.

“I am deeply disappointed that a professor of medicine, the Health Minister Lukasz Szumowski put a short-term political interest over the Hippocratic oath,” he wrote on Twitter.

On Friday, the European Union’s legislature rebuked Poland for flouting “European values” by pressing ahead with the election.

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Factbox: Canada offers C$2.5 billion for hard-hit energy sector as part of COVID-19 stimulus

(Reuters) – * Canada to invest C$1.7 billion ($1.2 billion) to clean up orphan and abandoned wells, set up C$750 million emission reduction loan fund and offer C$962 million to regional development agencies to help small businesses.

* Bank of Canada to buy up to C$50 billion of provincial bonds.

* The central bank to buy up C$10 billion in high-quality corporate bonds in the secondary market.

* Bank of Canada to increase its participation in the federal government’s treasury bill auctions to 40% of each new issue.

* Canada to provide C$500 million in funding to support the arts, culture and sports sectors.

* Export Development Canada and Business Development Bank to get additional C$12.5 billion to provide guaranteed loans to small- and medium-sized businesses.

* Canada will cover up to 75% of payroll wages for all enterprises and charities with a revenue loss of 30% or more due to the coronavirus outbreak. The wage subsidy, which will not depend on a business’ size, will be capped at C$847 a week per worker.

* Small businesses and not-for-profits will have access to interest-free loans of up to C$40,000. The program is expected to provide C$25 billion of support, with loans fully guaranteed and funded by the Canadian government. Anyone who pays the loan off by Dec. 31, 2022, will see 25% loan forgiveness up to C$10,000.

* GST, HST payments and customs duties due at the end of March, April and May are now deferred until the end of June.

* Finance Minister Bill Morneau told reporters the wage subsidy, loan programs and tax deferral represent C$65 billion in direct support and an additional C$30 billion in deferred taxes.

* Bank of Canada cut its benchmark interest rate by 50 basis points to 0.25% on March 27, its lowest in a decade.

* The central bank also said it would begin purchases of C$5 billion per week of Government of Canada securities in the secondary market.

* Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp on March 26 bolstered the insured mortgage purchase program to C$150 billion from previously announced C$50 billion.

* The Canadian Parliament on March 25 approved a C$52 billion financial package.

* Delays student loan repayment to six months.

* Provides a taxable C$2,000-a-month benefit for up to four months to workers affected by the outbreak. The benefit is available to workers affected by the current situation whether or not they are eligible for employment insurance.

* Provides additional help to low- and modest-income individuals and families with a special top-up payment under the Goods and Services Tax credit, estimated to cost about C$5.5 billion.

* Provides additional assistance to families with children by temporarily boosting Canada Child Benefit payments, delivering almost C$2 billion in extra support.

* The government has offered C$10 billion in credit support to businesses.

* The Bank of Canada on March 20 announced a coordinated action with some other central banks to further enhance liquidity via the standing U.S. dollar liquidity swap line arrangements.

* Extends the tax filing deadline for individuals to June 1, and allows all taxpayers to defer, until after Aug. 31, 2020, the payment of any income tax amounts that become owing on or after March 18 and before September 2020.

*Allows all businesses to defer, until after Aug. 31, 2020, the payment of any income tax amounts that become owing on or after March 18 and before September 2020.

* Further expands Export Development Canada’s ability to provide support to domestic businesses.

* Provides flexibility on the Canada account limit, to allow the government to provide additional support to Canadian businesses, when deemed to be in the national interest, to deal with exceptional circumstances.

* Augments credit available to farmers and the agri-food sector through Farm Credit Canada.

* Provides one-time funding of C$500 million to provinces through the Canada Health Transfer for their critical healthcare system needs.

* Increases the credit available to small, medium, and large Canadian businesses.

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Belgium's traveller community adjusts to lockdown

Pont-a-Celles, Belgium (Reuters) – With travelling the roads a way of life for the Sinti community, Belgian Etienne Charpentier and his family say that having their freedom restricted due to the coronavirus epidemic is hitting them especially hard.

“Life is not the same anymore, everything is turned upside down, everything has changed, we can’t do what we wanted to anymore,” Charpentier, the president of Belguim’s national committee of travellers, told Reuters.

The Sinti are a European Roma community. While millions of people across the continent are locked down inside their homes to stop the spread of coronavirus, Belgium’s travellers are finding it hard to remain settled in one place without moving around freely.

“Our house is our trailer so we don’t have as much ease staying indoors as we do outdoors,” Charpentier said in an interview in his camp, set up in a car park near the decrepit industrial part of the Belgian town of Pont-a-Celles.

The biggest difficulty, he said, is not being able to visit family members in France who are affected by the COVID-19 disease.

“It is something that touches us, because we have a family life and for us, family life is something sacred, it is something that is important.”

Travellers likely face more weeks off the road. Belgium’s federal government has extended containment measures to control the spread of the coronavirus to May 3, with only a slight easing of restrictions to allow home improvement stores and garden centres to open and limited visits to care homes.

“It’s not always easy,” Charpentier said. But he added: “With time, we adapt.”

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U.S. airlines sitting on $10 billion in travel vouchers, lawmakers say

(Reuters) – U.S. airlines are estimated to be sitting on more than $10 billion in travel vouchers that should have been cash refunds from canceled flights, a group of senators released on Friday.

Many U.S. airlines are cancelling between 60% and 80% of their flights, and under federal law passengers on those flights are entitled to full refunds, Senators Ed Markey, Elizabeth Warren and Richard Blumenthal said in a statement.

“However, many airlines have been obfuscating this right by offering travel vouchers as the default option, requiring passengers to take burdensome steps to request refunds instead,” they said.

The Democratic senators had asked Alaska Airlines (ALK.N), Allegiant Air, American Airlines (AAL.O), Delta Air Lines (DAL.N), Frontier Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines (HA.O), JetBlue Airways (JBLU.O), Southwest Airlines (LUV.N), Spirit Airlines (SAVE.N), Sun Country Airlines, and United Airlines (UAL.O) to each provide details on their refund policies during the pandemic.

In the airline replies, which were reviewed by Reuters, most did not share the total value of the travel vouchers and credits they have issued during the pandemic.

But JetBlue, which has 5.5% of the domestic market share, said it issued over $20 million per day of travel credits to consumers in the first few weeks of March.

“Assuming a similar trend throughout the industry over the last month, this figure could mean that the airlines are sitting on more than $10 billion in customer cash,” the lawmakers said, while inviting airlines to provide more information if they dispute the figure.

According to their findings, airlines are offering cash refunds when the company itself cancels a flight, as required by the U.S. Transportation Department, but only Allegiant and Spirit are offering refunds to passengers who voluntarily cancel their own tickets.

“None of the biggest carriers with the most revenue, including United, American, Delta, and Southwest, offer similar refunds,” it said.

In their replies the airlines generally said their policies are consistent with DOT guidelines.

Sun Country, a Minnesota-based ultra low cost carrier, said refunding all of its non-refundable tickets outside of DOT guidelines “would put the company’s future at risk.”

Among replies by larger carriers, Delta said it had processed over 1 million refunds totaling more than $500 million in March, for passengers that had requested a cash refund for flights that Delta canceled or changed.

American Airlines said in its reply that over 90% of the customers who were offered a refund for flights the company itself canceled chose that option over a travel voucher.

If passengers do not specifically request a refund, they are issued a travel voucher. While many airlines have made the vouchers valid for up to two years, some airlines’ vouchers expire within one year.

U.S. airlines are set to soon receive $25 billion in government payroll aid, much of it in the form of free cash, and can also apply for another $25 billion in government loans to help them weather the coronavirus downturn.

Two weeks ago, the Transportation Department issued a notice to airlines reminding them they are obligated to refund tickets when they cancel a flight or make a significant flight schedule change that passengers opt not to accept, but did not take any immediate action against airlines.

The department said given the massive crisis it “will exercise its prosecutorial discretion and provide carriers an opportunity to become compliant before taking further action.”

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UK was too slow to react to the coronavirus outbreak, professor says

LONDON (Reuters) – The British government was too slow to react on a number of fronts to the novel coronavirus outbreak that could cause the deaths of 40,000 people in the United Kingdom, a leading public health professor said on Friday.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson initially refrained from approving the stringent controls that other European leaders imposed but then closed down the country when projections showed a quarter of a million people could die in the United Kingdom.

So far, more than 13,729 people with COVID-19 have died in British hospitals, though new official data indicates the true death toll could be much larger.

“Where were the system errors that led us to have probably the highest death rates in Europe?,” Anthony Costello, professor of International Child Health and Director of the UCL Institute for Global Health, told the Health and Social Care Committee.

“And we have to face the reality of that: We were too slow with a number of things. But we can make sure in the second wave we are not too slow.”

The United Kingdom has the fifth highest official death toll from COVID-19 in the world, after the United States, Italy, Spain and France, though the figure only covers hospital fatalities and the real number is probably much higher.

Costello said the death toll in the United Kingdom could reach as much as 40,000 and that just 10-15% of the population might then have immunity.

Related Coverage

  • UK hospital COVID-19 death toll rises 847 to 14,576
  • Deaths from COVID-19 in UK care homes is higher than 2%: health minister

“The recent estimates, even from the chief scientific officer, is that after this wave – we could see 40,000 deaths by the time it’s over – we could only have maybe 10%, 15% of the population infected or covered,” he said.

“So the idea of herd immunity would mean another five, six waves maybe in order to get to 60%.”

TESTING

Donna Kinnair, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, told the committee that there was still an issue over testing front line health professionals in Britain.

Under questioning from lawmakers, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the rate of deaths due to COVID-19 in care homes was higher than 2%, adding he was concerned about how the novel coronavirus was spreading in places housing vulnerable people.

Asked whether it was likely that less than 2% of COVID deaths were in care homes, Hancock told a parliamentary committee: “No,” adding that the less than 2% figure was out of date.

“I can say with a high degree of confidence that the number and the proportion are higher than what you say,” Hancock said.

Hancock said mass community testing was part of the British strategy and said he was expanding testing to include the police, the fire service, prison staff, critical local authority staff, the judiciary, and the work and pensions ministry.

Asked about mass community testing, he said: “It is part of the strategy, we will be introducing it when we can.”

He said it would be delivered as the government expanded commercial swab testing capabilities and was able to get a mass antibody test that was accurate enough to be used.

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