Coronavirus: Government’s senior advisers face calls to resign over testing ‘incompetence’

‘Time for wholesale resignations,’ says leading infection expert as deputy chief medical officer comes under fire for remarks at No 10 briefing

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England’s deputy chief medical officer has been heavily criticised for defending the government’s failure to boost coronavirus testing – with some independent experts calling for the medical team advising Downing Street to consider resigning.

Although Boris Johnson and his ministers have absorbed most of the attacks for the sluggish increase in testing, Dr Jenny Harries was denounced for claiming a larger number of tests would not necessarily have reduced the UK’s death toll.

Asked about Germany’s superior rates of testing and lower death rates, the senior adviser said a “causal link” was not yet established. She added: “I think the actual mechanism between the two is still not clear.”

Anthony Costello, professor of global health at University College London, suggested both chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and his deputy should step down if they did not see “links” between testing and death rates.

The former World Health Organisation director tweeted: “Deputy CMO Jenny Harries still believes that testing policy in the UK has been correct. And she doesn’t understand links between tests and Covid-19 death rates. Is this CMO policy? If so, they should resign.”

Dr Rupert Beale, head of the cell biology of infection lab at the Francis Crick Institute, added: “Agree completely. Next level incompetence bordering on malice. Time for wholesale resignations and a reordering of the so far pathetic UK response.”

The government maintains a target of having 100,000 Covid-19 tests each day by the end of April. The latest daily figures shows just 21,626 tests were carried out on Saturday.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser who chairs the scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage), last week admitted there had been a failure to increase testing “as fast as it needs to scale”.

Yet he too claimed it was too simple to say “testing saves lives”, telling ITV it was not possible to “equate” Germany’s relatively high rate of testing with the country’s relatively low number of deaths.

Dr Harries defended the country’s approach to managing the spread of the virus on Sunday, suggesting it had been right to focus on “managing” patients rather than the testing operation after the initial phase.

She said: “We had and we still have a very clear plan – we had a containment phase and it was very successful … But once you end up with seeding and cases across the community, our focus has to be on managing the clinical conditions of those individuals.”

The adviser also called for a “grown-up conversation” about personal protective equipment (PPE), and also claimed that the UK has been “an intentional exemplar in preparedness” to the virus.

Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of Global Public Health at Edinburgh University, responded to Sunday’s No 10 briefing by suggesting it was time both politicians and senior advisers showed “some humility” on the UK’s response.

She said: “What I’d love to hear: ‘We made a mistake and didn’t prepare. We underestimated this virus and treated it like a flu that would run through the population. We have not protected our front-line staff, and our most precious resource. But we will try now to listen and improve our response.”

Birmingham GP Rizwanul Haq referred to the comments about having an “adult conversation” as “ridiculous and patronising statement”, adding: “I don’t see her volunteering on being on the frontline without proper PPE.”

Professor John Ashton, the former regional public health director, has also been highly critical of the government’s “slow” response to the outbreak – and the “narrow group of chums” advising the prime minister.

“Not getting a grip in the early days all flowed from the prime minister not taking it seriously enough and the advice he was getting depending on a narrow group of chums, the chief medical officer and the chief scientist,” he told the Liverpool Echo.

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