Boris Johnson has admitted the Government could have handled the coronavirus outbreak “differently”, and said there were gaps in the understanding about the deadly virus during the early stages.
But the Prime Minister denied his administration had been too slow going into lockdown, arguing he “stuck like glue” to the advice of experts.
Speaking to BBC News, Mr Johnson said: “Maybe there were things we could have done differently, and of course there will be time to understand what exactly we could have done, or done differently.”
The Conservative Party leader has promised an inquiry into the approach to dealing with Covid-19.
During a combative interview on Friday, he said there would be a time for questions about the UK’s death rate, with more than 50,000 people thought to have died after testing positive for the virus.
“We didn’t understand (the virus) in the way that we would have liked in the first few weeks and months,” he said.
“And I think probably, the single thing that we didn’t see at the beginning was the extent to which it was being transmitted asymptomatically from person to person.
“I think it’s fair to say that there are things that we need to learn about how we handled it in the early stages… there will be plenty of opportunities to learn the lessons of what happened.”
When pressed on whether he had been too slow to lock the country down and hand out distancing advice, Mr Johnson denied there had been delay.
“No, on the contrary, no, if you look at the timing of every single piece of advice that we got from our advisers, from Sage, you will find that whenever they said that we needed to take a particular step, actually, we stuck to that advice like glue,” he said.
Labour said the Prime Minister had “finally admitted” the Government had “mishandled its response to the coronavirus”.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “This finally puts to bed the Prime Minister’s previous claim his Government ‘took the right decisions at the right time’.
“It was too slow to acknowledge the threat of the virus, too slow to enter lockdown and too slow to take this crisis seriously.”
Sir Ed Davey, acting Liberal Democrat leader, accused Mr Johnson of showing “no remorse for the catastrophic mistakes” made and called for the promised inquiry to be “immediate”.
“Boris Johnson’s comments prove why an immediate independent inquiry is so essential,” said the former cabinet minister.
“The Prime Minister and his Government must be faced with the reality of where they went wrong, so that they can learn from their mistakes which have led to tragic consequences.”
Mr Johnson conceded that Britain was “vulnerable” to a second wave of coronavirus in the winter but looked to assure the public that action was being taken.
“We can see what’s happening in other countries – I won’t name them – but you can see the resurgence that’s happening. We know that we’re vulnerable there,” he said.
“So that’s why we’re getting on now with our preparations for the winter… a massive flu vaccination programme, stockpiling PPE, making sure that we ramp up test and trace, and making sure that people get tested if they have symptoms.”
It comes as rank-and-file police officers urged shops to refuse entry to people not wearing face coverings after new rules about face coverings came into force on Friday.
Some high street chains, including Costa Coffee and supermarkets Asda and Sainsbury’s, said they would not penalise customers who failed to cover-up but the Police Federation of England and Wales called on retailers to take a firmer stance.
Police can hand out £100 fines to people in shops, shopping centres, banks, takeaways, post offices, sandwich shops and supermarkets in England who flout the rules.
But federation national chairman John Apter said forces “do not have the resources” to widely enforce the law and officers should only be called as a “last resort”.
He said: “It is our members who are expected to police what is a new way of living and I would urge retail outlets to play their part in making the rules crystal clear – if you are not wearing a face covering then you are not coming in.”
Guidance was finally issued by the Government on Thursday after weeks of confusion and mixed messaging from ministers.
It states that staff in premises where face coverings are required are encouraged to “take reasonable steps to promote compliance with the law” and can refuse entry to people who do not have a valid exemption under the rules.
Retail and trade organisations criticised the Government for taking so long to publish the new laws and guidance, having announced the measure more than a week ago.
And union leaders voiced fears the rules could put workers’ safety at risk if there are abusive customers or people who refuse to wear a mask.
Venues like restaurants, pubs, gyms, hairdressers, beauty salons, leisure centres, cinemas, concert halls and theatres are exempt from the new rules.
Other exemptions to face coverings include children under 11, people with breathing problems and anyone who cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a physical or mental illness or impairment or disability.
The laws could be in place until at least January, and even last a year, unless the Government decides to scrap them in the meantime.
Face coverings are already mandatory in shops in Scotland and will be compulsory in shops in Northern Ireland from August 1. There are no plans to make them compulsory in shops in Wales.