Boris Johnson announced a £600 million package for coronavirus infection control in English care homes as he admitted that the number of deaths among residents has been “too high”.

The Prime Minister insisted the number of outbreaks and fatalities in care homes is now “well down”, as he sought to defend his handling of the crisis.

Figures released on Tuesday suggested that care home deaths accounted for some 40% of coronavirus-related fatalities registered in England and Wales in the week ending May 1.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the Government of being “too slow to protect people in care homes” and referred to official advice in place until March 12 which said it remained “very unlikely” that people in care homes would become infected.

Mr Johnson, responding during PMQs in the Commons, replied: “No, it wasn’t true that the advice said that, and actually we brought the lockdown in care homes ahead of the general lockdown.”

He added: “And a huge exercise in testing is going on – a further £600 million, I can announce today, for infection control in care homes.

“And, yes, it is absolutely true that the number of casualties has been too high, but I can tell the House, as I told (Sir Keir) last week and indeed this week, the number of outbreaks is down and the number of fatalities in care homes is now well down.”

Following the exchange, Sir Keir wrote to the Prime Minister, asking him to “correct the record” in the Commons.

Of the 6,035 deaths linked to Covid-19 and registered in the week ending May 1, some 2,423 (40%) were in care homes, compared with 3,214 (53%) in hospitals.

Analysis of official figures suggests there have been more than 40,000 coronavirus-related deaths in the UK in total.

Mr Johnson said it had been an “appalling epidemic” and that the final death toll would be “stark” and “deeply horrifying” as he sought to explain why the Government has stopped publishing international comparisons at the daily Downing Street press briefing.

He told Sir Keir that such comparisons are “premature” because “the correct and final way of making these comparisons will be when we have all the excess death totals for all the relevant countries”.

“We do not yet have that data. I’m not going to try to pretend to the House that the figures, when they are finally confirmed, are anything other than stark and deeply, deeply horrifying. This has been an appalling epidemic.

“What I can tell the House is that we are getting those numbers down, the number of deaths are coming down, the number of hospital admissions is down.”

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The Commons clash came as ministers defended the easing of lockdown restrictions in England amid signs of confusion and anger over the new rules.

Moves to unlock the property market mean that, from Wednesday, people will be able to invite prospective buyers into their homes but will still be unable to visit family or friends.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps insisted the Government is taking a “common sense” approach, gradually easing the restrictions as the outbreak is brought under control.

But with ministers encouraging employees to return to work where possible, he urged people not to “flood back” on to public transport, warning that the system will not be able to cope.

The changes to the guidelines in England mean home-buyers and renters will be able to complete purchases and view properties in person, while visiting estate agents, developer sales offices or show homes will also be allowed.

The Government estimates that more than 450,000 buyers and renters have been unable to progress their plans to move house since lockdown measures were introduced in March.

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In other developments:

– The UK economy contracted at the fastest pace on record in March as the coronavirus crisis puts Britain on the brink of the worst recession in 300 years.

– Police have been told they have no powers to enforce two-metre social distancing in England in fresh guidelines issued by the College of Policing and the National Police Chiefs’ Council.

– Holiday giant Tui is looking to cut up to 8,000 roles worldwide with the firm calling Covid-19 the “greatest crisis” the industry has faced.

– A 14-year-old boy with no underlying health conditions has died from a Kawasaki-like disease linked to coronavirus.

– Mr Johnson paid tribute to Belly Mujinga, a railway ticket office worker who died with coronavirus after being spat at while on duty, saying: “The fact that she was abused for doing her job is utterly appalling.”

In other changes – which have not been adopted by the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – people will be allowed to take unlimited outdoor exercise and to sunbathe in parks and public places.

They will also be able to meet one other person from another household in a public space, as long as the two-metre rule is respected, while golf clubs, tennis courts and angling have also been given the green light.

Restrictions on how far people can travel to get to the countryside, national parks and beaches in England have also been lifted – but people have been warned to respect local communities, keep their distance from others and avoid hot spots or busy areas.

Mr Shapps said the Government is adopting a cautious approach – and that restrictions will be reimposed if the transmission rate of the disease picks up again.

“We must understand, we have done so well in the last eight weeks we cannot throw that all away, and so these are baby steps,” he told BBC Breakfast.

“If someone visits a home (for sale), that’s likely to be a one-off; if you are starting to visit your family again, that’s likely to be many more times.

“Somewhere there has to be a line drawn where we say ‘This is OK, but this isn’t’, in order to gradually release things. And this is where that line is at the moment.”