The United Kingdom's COVID-19 death toll rose 621 to 28,131 as of May 1, just short of Italy which has so far had the world's second most deadly outbreak of the disease after the United States.

As Britain shadows Italy for the grim status of being the worst hit country in Europe, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing criticism from opposition parties who say his government stumbled in the early stages of the outbreak.

Housing minister Robert Jenrick gave the latest UK figures at a Downing Street briefing on Saturday.

The United States has had 64,740 deaths, followed by Italy with 28,710 and the United Kingdom on 28,131 and then Spain on 25,100, according to a Reuters tally.

Italy, which has a population of 60 million, said its death toll rose 474 as of Saturday. The United Kingdom has a population of about 67 million.

Johnson, 55, initially resisted introducing a lockdown to restrict economic and public activity, but changed course when projections showed a quarter of a million people could die.

Johnson himself battled COVID-19 last month, spending three days in intensive care. He returned to work on Monday, telling the nation that people around the world were looking at the United Kingdom's "apparent success".

coronavirus face mask
Representational Image Pixabay

TESTS FOR EASING LOCKDOWN

He has said the country is over the peak but that it is still to early to relax the lockdown he imposed on March 23 because there could be a second peak that he fears might overwhelm hospitals.

The $3.0 trillion British economy, the world's fifth largest, is stalling and Johnson is due next week to present a possible way to get the country back to work without triggering a second spike in cases.

He has set five tests that must be met before he can lift the lockdown - with a reduction in the daily death toll and prevention of a second deadly peak among the key ones.

Government scientists say that while the daily death tolls show a downward trend they expect them to plateau for a while.