UK boosts healthcare funding to ward off winter COVID-19 wave


(Changes date, adds minister)

LONDON, July 17 (Reuters) - Prime Minister Boris Johnson is to pour 3 billion pounds ($3.8 billion) into England's National Health Service (NHS) to try to ward off any resurgence of the coronavirus, as he sets out the next stage of his recovery plan for Britain.

Britain is the worst-affected country in Europe by COVID-19 with a death toll from confirmed cases of more than 45,000.

The government has faced criticism over several different aspects of its response to the pandemic, including that it was too slow to impose a lockdown and failed to ramp up testing capacity quickly enough.

In recent weeks, the country has eased lockdown restrictions as infection rates have fallen but the government said it must now begin to prepare for a potential second peak in cases over winter.

"The Prime Minister is clear that now is not the time for complacency, and we must make sure our NHS is battle ready for winter," a spokesman said ahead of a news conference by Johnson.

Johnson is also reported to be ready to change official guidance to encourage more people back to work, although ministers denied there would be a major shift.

"It is for employers to decide, obviously if people can return to a safe office space, an office environment, or their place of work," security minister James Brokenshire said.

Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance said on Thursday that working from home was an effective social distancing measure and he saw no reason to change it.

The 3 billion pound cash boost for the state-funded health system would be made available immediately, and the use of private hospitals and temporary field hospitals would be permitted until March, the government said.

Total annual NHS funding in England exceeds 115 billion pounds.

The funding announcement applies only to the English health service, with knock-on increases for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to be set out later.

The government will also increase testing capacity and flexibility, bolster its stockpiles of protective equipment and, wary of increased pressure from other seasonal illnesses, increase its annual flu vaccination programme. (Reporting by William James; additional reporting by Sarah Young editing by Stephen Addison) ((; +44 207 542 3374; Reuters Messaging: Keywords: HEALTH CORONAVIRUS/BRITAIN JOHNSON (UPDATE 1, PIX, TV)

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