THE coronavirus crisis reached a grim landmark yesterday as the UK death toll passed 20,000.

It means the UK has become the fifth country to reach this number of deaths, behind the US, Italy, Spain and France.

Less than six weeks ago the Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said it would be a “good outcome” if the number of deaths in the UK could be held below 20,000.

One expert has warned the toll could now double before the outbreak is brought under control, with the UK “undoubtedly” in line for having one of the highest death rates in Europe.

In Scotland, there were 47 more deaths yesterday, bringing the total to 1231.

At the daily No 10 press conference, Home Secretary Priti Patel said the entire nation was grieving as it marked another “tragic and terrible milestone” in the outbreak.

She added: “The nation today will be deeply moved by the figures of the number of people who have died.

“Every death is a tragedy, but there is a very strong message here – we have made a great deal of progress but actually we are not out of the woods yet.”

Vallance appeared before the Health Select Committee on March 17, when the UK death toll stood at 71.

Asked whether it was hoped that deaths could potentially stay below 20,000, he said: “That is the hope, that we can get it down to that. To put that into perspective, every year from seasonal flu the number of deaths is thought to be 8000.

“If we can get numbers down to 20,000 and below, that’s a good outcome in terms of where we would hope to get to with this outbreak.”

Professor Stephen Powis, the medical director of NHS England who had echoed this claim, was questioned at yesterday’s press conference over whether the Government’s strategy should have been different.

He said: “It is a very sad day for the nation – 20,000 deaths is clearly 20,000 deaths too many.

“When Sir Patrick Vallance and I made that comment a number of weeks ago, what we were emphasising was that this was a new virus, a global pandemic, a once-in-a-century global health crisis and this was going to be a huge challenge, not just for the UK but for every country.

“Unfortunately we have seen that challenge, not just here but around the globe.

“Even in countries that have got on top of this early on, we are unfortunately beginning to see new infections.”

He added: “This is something we are going to have to continue working our way through over the months ahead – as I have said before, this is not a sprint, this will be a marathon.”

According to the latest official figures, a total of 20,319 patients had died in hospital after testing positive for Covid-19 in the UK as of 5pm on Friday – up by 813 from the previous day.

That figure does not include deaths in the wider community, such as in care homes, which means the true toll will be higher by several thousand at least.

In Scotland, the number of people who have tested positive for the virus was 10,051, up 354 from Friday’s figure of 9697.

A total of 1748 patients are in hospital with confirmed or suspected Covid-19, a rise of 38 from the previous day, while 140 of these patients were in intensive care, down one.

The Scottish Government figures also showed that the number of suspected cases in care homes increased by 176 to reach 2621 yesterday. Just under half of care homes – 49% – have notified of at least one case.

Dr Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, warned the UK could hit 30,000 or 40,000 deaths in hospital before the pandemic is brought under control.

“The World Health Organisation said yesterday that about half of all deaths in Europe are occurring in residence of elderly care homes,” he said.

“We know for a fact the figures reported every day are an underestimate, possibly a significant underestimate of the total number of deaths.

“We are undoubtedly going to have one of the highest death rates in Europe.”

Meanwhile the Scottish Government is facing calls to publish data on the ethnicity of people who have died from Covid-19. The Scottish Liberal Democrats want ministers to make the figures public in light of the UK Government pledging to hold a formal review into why the black, Asian and minority ethnic community appear to be disproportionately affected by coronavirus.

National Records of Scotland said that they are actively considering how they release data.

In other developments Scottish Environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham has praised scientific institutions for offering support to tackle coronavirus. The Scottish Government-funded James Hutton Institute, Scottish Rural College and Rowett Institute are providing scientific equipment to help with testing and have volunteered staff to work on projects.

Tourism Secretary Fergus Ewing has written to the UK Government calling for its job retention scheme to be amended to help tourism businesses survive. He said greater flexibility, including allowing for part-time furlough arrangements, would help tourism firms prepare for eventual recovery.