The number of people in UK who have died in hospital from Covid-19 has risen by 596 to 16,060, according to daily health ministry figures.

"As of 5pm on 18 April, of those hospitalised in the UK who tested positive for coronavirus, 16,060 have sadly died," the UK Department of Health said.

The last time the UK health ministry reported a smaller increase in the daily death toll was 6 April.

The number of people in the UK tested for coronavirus since the outbreak began, 372,967 so far, is the equivalent of around 560 people in every 100,000 or 0.6% of the population.

Northern Ireland registered just one further death in hospitals, bringing total hospital fatalities to 194. Figure does not include deaths in nursing homes or other non hospital settings 

The Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland said a further 159 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in N Ireland, bringing total to 2,645

Questions have emerged about the UK government's preparedness during the build-up to the coronavirus outbreak as a wideranging newspaper report detailed how Prime Minister Boris Johnson missed five meetings of the government's key Cobra committee as the health crisis was gathering pace.

The claims came as the Mr Johnson, who is recovering from coronavirus, was said to be giving directions to ministers from the country retreat of Chequers - where he is recuperating.

Reports in the Sunday Times alleged that the Conservative leader did not attend a raft of Cobra meetings and claimed the government missed a series of opportunities to try and lessen the impact of the outbreak.

In response to the report, Downing Street spokesman said: "This article contains a series of falsehoods and errors and actively misrepresents the enormous amount of work which was going on in government at the earliest stages of the coronavirus outbreak.

"This is an unprecedented global pandemic and we have taken the right steps at the right time to combat it, guided at all times by the best scientific advice.

"The government has been working day and night to battle against coronavirus, delivering a strategy designed at all times to protect our NHS and save lives.

"The Prime Minister has been at the helm of the response to this, providing leadership during this hugely challenging period for the whole nation."

An Iwo Jima inspired NHS Heroes Mural in the village of Glynn Co Antrim

In a statement posted on the Gov.UK website, the spokesman took issue with several points in The Sunday Times piece.

In reference to the fact that Mr Johnson did not attend five Cobra meetings in the run-up to the outbreak, the spokesman said: "It is entirely normal and proper for Cobra to be chaired by the relevant secretary of state."

He also said that the World Health Organization did not declare Covid-19 a 'Public Health Emergency of International Concern', until 30 January.

Meanwhile controversy continued to grow over the insufficient levels of personal protection equipment (PPE) for frontline NHS staff, and criticism that not enough people were being tested for the killer virus.

British Labour leader Keir Starmer accused the government of dragging its feet in dealing with the pandemic. Writing in the Mail on Sunday, Mr Starmer said: "The government was too slow to enter the lockdown.

He said: "It has been too slow to increase the number of people being tested.

"It has been too slow in getting NHS staff the critical equipment they need to keep them safe. We need to make sure these mistakes are not repeated."

Read more: Latest coronavirus stories

A delivery of 84 tonnes of personal protective equipment (PPE) for front-line workers in the UK has been delayed.

The shipment, which includes 400,000 surgical gowns, was due to arrive in the UK from Turkey on Sunday afternoon. The reason for the delay is not yet known.

A government spokeswoman said: "We are continuing to work to ensure the shipment is delivered as soon as possible."

The Royal College of Surgeons of England (RCS) said it was "deeply disturbed" that medics could be asked to reuse items or wear different kit when treating Covid-19 patients.

Healthcare staff treating positive patients have been given guidance that they should wear long-sleeved disposable fluid-repellent gowns but, because of shortages, they have just been advised they could be asked to reuse PPE or wear aprons.