London police: Months away from final high-rise fire death toll
Posted June 28, 2017 8:08 a.m. EDT
Updated June 28, 2017 11:59 a.m. EDT
At least 80 people are presumed to have been killed in the deadly blaze at Grenfell Tower, with UK police warning it is likely some victims will never be identified and that it will "take until the end of the year" before a final death toll is known.
Det. Supt. Fiona McCormack, who is leading the investigation, said, "We are many months from being able to provide a number which we believe accurately represents the total loss of life inside Grenfell Tower. Only after we have completed a search and recovery operation, which will take until the end of the year."
McCormack added that a small number of flats are still unsafe to work in but police have spoken to people who lived, or have friends or relatives, in 106 of the tower's apartments.
Authorities provided an update on the investigation as it was announced that exterior cladding on 120 high-rise buildings across 37 local authority areas in England have failed fire safety checks, Prime Minister Theresa May said on Wednesday.
Safety checks are continuing across the country following the June 14 fire, which was apparently stoked by the building's flammable exterior cladding and left at least 79 people dead or missing.
Addressing the House of Commons during Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs), May said, "So far 100% of the samples that have come in have proved to be combustible."
In light of the tests conducted to date, she urged people to take preemptive action before results are returned and work with their local fire services to ensure that buildings are safe for residents.
The embattled Prime Minister was quizzed about fire safety, exterior cladding and public-sector cuts in a heated PMQs session.
Corbyn: Grenfell 'must be wake-up call'
It was the first time May has sparred with opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn since her party suffered a disappointing showing in the UK's general election earlier this month. Corbyn launched a furious diatribe from across the aisle, blaming austerity measures for a decline in public safety in recent years.
"When you cut local authority budgets by 40%, we all pay a price in public safety," Corbyn railed amid cries of "shameful" and "apologize" from Conservative backbenchers. "Fewer building inspectors, fewer planning inspectors -- we all pay a price ... those cuts to the fire service have meant that there are 11,000 fewer firefighters."
Corbyn slammed the "disastrous effects of austerity" and accused the government of continuing to "disregard working-class communities" and of "cutting corners."
He continued: "I urge the Prime Minister to come up with the resources needed to test and remove cladding, retrofit sprinklers, properly fund the firefighters and police so that all our communities can truly feel safe in their own homes. This disaster must be a wake-up call."
But May pushed back in her response, defending both her party and the former coalition government to argue that "the cladding of tower blocks began under the (Tony) Blair government" and that fire regulation checks had been amended as the result of a 2005 Labour government initiative.
Queen's Speech vote
Following the extended PMQs session -- which ran around 20 minutes over its allotted half-hour -- MPs gathered in the Commons for a debate on the Queen's speech.
Last week, Queen Elizabeth II attended the State Opening of Parliament and read out a Brexit-heavy list of the minority government's intentions for the coming two years. The speech included eight bills centered on the UK leaving the European Union, and measures to address the recent terror attacks in Manchester and London, as well as the Grenfell fire.
On Thursday, MPs will be asked to approve the policy agenda in a vote in the Commons, with many seeing the vote as more of a vote of confidence for May and her minority government.
"The Democratic Unionist Party has said they will support her in [the Queen's speech vote]. But this deal is hugely controversial for a number of reasons, not least because May has agreed to pay more than a billion pounds to communities in Northern Ireland," explained CNN Political analyst Carole Walker.
In a bid to stay in power, the Conservative Party announced a deal with Northern Ireland's DUP last week. Almost immediately, criticism of the deal erupted from leaders in Wales and Scotland asking why Northern Ireland should get more funds but no additional spending is being directed towards their devolved areas.
But before a vote on the Queen's speech can happen, May and her Conservative Party are facing calls to show the government's commitment to ending austerity in the police and fire services. Corbyn's Labour Party has tacked an amendment onto the Queen's speech, calling for an end to the public-sector pay cap.
A vote on the amendment is due to go ahead on Wednesday at around 7 p.m. local time.