LONDON Under mounting pressure after a botched election and facing criticism for not meeting victims of a London tower block blaze sooner, British Prime Minister Theresa May visited the injured in hospital on Friday as the death toll rose to 30.
Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, London mayor Sadiq Khan, Prince William and Queen Elizabeth, 91, have visited residents from the 24-storey block destroyed on Wednesday as many slept, with anger at the authorities growing in the local community.
May has been criticized from within her own Conservative Party over her response and she pledged on Thursday to hold a public inquiry into the fire at the social housing block which was home to about 600 people. The toll is expected to rise.
May met victims privately at a central London hospital on Friday and had expressed her sorrow on television on Thursday after meeting emergency services personnel.
“She should have been there with the residents. You have to be prepared to receive people’s emotions, and not be so frightened about people,” former Conservative cabinet minister Michael Portillo told the BBC.
May’s response has been contrasted with that of Corbyn, who hugged locals at the estate during his visit on Thursday, and the royals who met residents and volunteers on Friday.
“That’s one of the most terrible things I have ever seen,” Prince William said of the fire which left the tower block a blackened shell.
Some desperate residents pleaded to speak to the royals about their plight and the fate of missing children as they left the site, with William promising he would return.
There has been growing fury at the low-rent estate where residents wanted answers on why the fire was able to spread so rapidly and why complaints about safety had been ignored.
London police said an investigation, led by a detective from its homicide and major crime unit, would examine whether criminal offences had been committed although they said there was nothing to suggest the fire was started deliberately.
Commander Stuart Cundy said they had been able to remove the remains of only 12 victims from the building.
“Sadly, it is expected that the total will rise and it is not expected that any survivors will be found,” he said. Police have said it could take months to search the building and some victims might never be identified.
Locals were expected to stage a march in Kensington, where social housing tenants live cheek by jowl with billionaires in one of Europe’s richest districts, from 3 p.m. (10.00 a.m. ET) while a rally to demand justice for the victims was due to start in the government district of Westminster at 1700 GMT.
While the disaster has prompted an outpouring of generosity, there was also anger at politicians as the charred tower was cast as a deadly symbol of a divided society.
“NOW THE ANGER”
British newspapers, including those which backed May in the June 8 election, sharpened their criticism of the government. They cited a series of unanswered issues including whether the cladding used on the building helped the blaze spread.
Planning documents detailing the recent refurbishment of the block did not refer to a type of fire barrier that safety experts said must be used when high-rise blocks are re-clad.
“Now the anger – furious locals demand answers,” was the Sun headline, while The Daily Telegraph ran with “Sorrow turns to anger” under a picture of two girls in an emotional embrace.
May also drew criticism for seeming wooden and reluctant to engage in open debate with political rivals and voters during her election campaign, but local government minister Sajid Javid, responsible for housing policy, defended her on Friday.
“What she wanted to do was to speak to the people working on the ground on the recovery operation, the rescue operation to make sure that they’ve got everything they want and see how she could help,” he told Sky news.
May failed to win an outright majority in the June snap election and is now battling to strike a deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to support her government.
(Additional reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Louise Ireland)