Ministers decide coronavirus response, not the scientists – Downing Street

Downing Street has signalled ministers should shoulder responsibility for controversial decisions made during the coronavirus pandemic after Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey sought to blame scientists.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said “ministers ultimately decide” what to do with scientific advice, after a scathing summary from the Commons Science and Technology Committee identified several flaws in the Government’s Covid-19 response.

In particular it highlighted the country’s “inadequate” testing capacity, and cited how the decision to ditch community testing, in contrast to other countries which made it a tenet of their coronavirus strategies, was “one of the most consequential made” during the crisis.

Coronavirus – Tue Apr 14, 2020
Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey looked to absolve government of blame over the coronavirus strategy (Danny Lawson/PA)

But Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey deflected criticism on to the scientists advising the Government’s response.

She told Sky News: “I’ve said that we’re getting advice from the scientists, it is for ministers to decide on policy but we’ve tried to take every step of the way making sure that we listen to the science, understand the science and make decisions based on that.

“If the science was wrong, advice at the time was wrong, I’m not surprised if people then think we made a wrong decision.”

In a letter to the Prime Minister assessing evidence to the committee during the pandemic, its chairman, Greg Clark, said Public Health England (PHE) had repeatedly failed to answer questions over the “pivotal” decision to scrap mass testing in March, before lockdown measures were introduced.

The committee also identified concerns about transparency during the pandemic.

Responding to Ms Coffey’s comments, Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said: “The Prime Minister is hugely grateful for the hard work and expertise of the UK’s world-leading scientists, we’ve been guided by their advice throughout and we continue to do so.

“Scientists provide advice to the Government, ministers ultimately decide.”

Testing and tracking in the community was suspended on March 12, concentrating largely on hospitals instead.

Mr Clark said the decision to “pursue an approach of initially concentrating testing in a limited number of laboratories and to expand them gradually, rather than an approach of surging capacity through a large number of available public sector, research institute, university and private sector labs is one of the most consequential made during this crisis”.

Former Business Secretary Greg Clark is now chairman of the Commons Science and Technology Committee (Yui Mok/PA)

He added: “From it followed the decision on March 12 to cease testing in the community and retreat to testing principally within hospitals.”

He said the decision meant that residents in care homes and their staff could not be tested at a time when the spread of the virus was at its most rampant.

The committee, in a 19-page letter to the Prime Minister, also described how testing capacity had been “inadequate for most of the pandemic so far”.

It said: “Capacity was not increased early enough or boldly enough.

“Capacity drove strategy, rather than strategy driving capacity.”

Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced on April 2 that he wanted to reach 100,000 daily coronavirus tests by the end of the month.

The figure was reached for the first time on April 30 but ministers were met with accusations the figures were inflated because it included the number of tests which had been sent out but not completed.

The milestone has been reached a handful of times since.

Coronavirus – Thu May 7, 2020
A person on the NHS coronavirus contact tracing app, which is being trialled on the Isle of Wight (Steve Parsons/PA)

The report, based on evidence sessions with experts including Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, and Professor Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, found the approach to dealing with asymptomatic carriers of Covid-19 was “unclear”.

It called on the Government to “urgently” expand its contact tracing capacity in “order to facilitate further easing of social distancing measures as soon as possible, while minimising the risk of a second peak in infections.

It came as Downing Street announced the NHS contact tracing app, trialled on the Isle of Wight this month, will be launched across the country in the “coming weeks”.

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