LONDON • British Prime Minister Theresa May sought yesterday to quell anger over a deadly tower block fire, meeting victims of the disaster in her 10 Downing Street office a day after protesters had jeered her when she visited local residents.
Prior to the meeting with victims, other residents of the block and volunteer workers, she chaired a meeting of a government task force on the disaster. The London police said yesterday that at least 58 people were assumed to have lost their lives in the fire, out of which 30 were confirmed dead and 28 were missing and presumed dead.
Mrs May was rushed away from a meeting with residents of the building on Friday under heavy police guard as protesters shouted "Shame on you", and hundreds stormed a local town hall calling for justice. Police officers held back booing crowds and broke up scuffles as her vehicle drove off from a local church, where she had met survivors, residents and volunteers.
After a botched snap election that lost her party its majority in Parliament, Mrs May is under fire for her response to the blaze on Wednesday. Residents of the tower said Mrs May was far too slow to visit the stricken community, that the 24-storey building had been unsafe and that officials have failed to give enough information and support to those who have lost relatives and their homes.
Asked repeatedly whether she had misread the public mood, Mrs May did not answer directly but said the focus was on providing support to the victims. "What I'm now absolutely focused on is ensuring that we get that support on the ground," Mrs May said in a BBC Newsnight interview. "Government is making money available. We're ensuring that we're going to get to the bottom of what's happened. We will ensure that people are rehoused."
Alongside both police and fire investigations into the blaze, she has promised to set up a public inquiry.
She has also pledged £5 million (S$8.8 million) of support, housing guarantees and help with access to bank accounts and cash. Those who lost their homes will be rehoused within three weeks, she said.
One of her closest allies, Mr Damian Green, defended Mrs May yesterday. "The Prime Minister is distraught about what has happened," said Mr Green, who was appointed Mrs May's deputy in the wake of the election. "We're all desperately sad, we're all angry, but of course none of us as angry as those who were directly affected. I absolutely get why they're angry."
After a turbulent three months which has seen three militant attacks and now the tower blaze, Queen Elizabeth said "it is difficult to escape a very sombre national mood", in a message on her official birthday. "Put to the test, the UK has been resolute in the face of adversity... United in our sadness, we are equally determined, without fear or favour, to support all those rebuilding lives so horribly affected by injury and loss," she said.
Such a direct message from the monarch is rare and shows the extent of the turmoil in Britain.
Opponents said Mrs May's handling of the fire has thrust her position further into doubt. "Wallowing in the wash of a general election that stripped our Prime Minister of her authority on the very eve of EU negotiations, neither common sense nor the evidence suggest she can re-establish public confidence," wrote Mr Matthew Parris, a columnist and former Conservative lawmaker, in the Times. "This Prime Minister is not viable."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE