‘We’ve wasted a month’: Former public health chief issues furious condemnation of UK coronavirus response

‘I’m tearing my hair out really, with this ... We should have gotten a grip on this a month ago,’ says John Ashton

Kate Ng
Thursday 12 March 2020 09:43
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Former public health director John Ashton criticises UK coronavirus response

The former regional director of Public Health England has issued a furious condemnation what he described as the UK government’s “complacent” response to the coronavirus pandemic.

A visibly angry Professor John Ashton told BBC Newsnight the government should have started putting measures in place a month ago, and raised concerns hospitals would be overworked.

His comments come after Chancellor Rishi Sunak unveiled a £30bn stimulus package that included £12bn to tackle the issues caused by coronavirus - but did not impose measures to prohibit large public gatherings and social distancing that other countries including China and South Korea have used successfully.

“I’m tearing my hair out really, with this,” said Mr Ashton. “I’m very frustrated here. I’m with Richard Horton, the editor of the Lancet, and with Tedros [Adhanom], the director-general of the World Health Organisation — I think it was a kick up the bottom particularly for this country.

“We’ve got a complacent attitude, it feels wooden and academic, and we’ve wasted a month when we should have been engaging with the public.

“If this now spreads the way it looks likely to spread, there will not be enough hospital beds and people will have to be nursed at home. We should have gotten a grip on this a month ago,” he added.

Editor of science journal The Lancet, Mr Horton said earlier this week Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock are "playing roulette with the public" by not implementing "social distancing and closure policies" sooner.

He tweeted on Tuesday: "The UK government’s decision not to move to 'delay' may be understandable, but it’s a mistake. As one UK expert epidemiologist put it to me last night, their decision is 'very disappointing—the UK should have moved to more aggressive social distancing measures immediately.'"

As the COVID-19 outbreak was designated a pandemic on Wednesday night, Mr Adhanom called for governments to take more urgent action to contain and manage the spread of the virus.

He said: "The challenge for many countries who are now dealing with large clusters or community transmission is not whether they can do the same – it’s whether they will. Some countries are struggling with a lack of capacity. Some countries are struggling with a lack of resources. Some countries are struggling with a lack of resolve.

"We have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action. We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear."

Mr Ashton drew comparisons between the UK’s response to that of Bahrain, led by the crown prince, who he said set up a “war room” over a month ago and are carrying out “extensive testing”.

“I want to know why we are not testing, why we haven’t tested those people coming back from Italy and who are now amongst us. We’ve got a recipe for community spread here,” he said.

The former director has been vocal in his criticism of Boris Johnson’s leadership over coronavirus, which has so far infected 456 people in the UK and killed six.

During an interview with talkRADIO last week, Mr Ashton said the prime minister has been treating the public “like children”.

He said: “What the COBR should have been doing, with the chief medical officer alongside and the advisors is on a day-to-day basis taking stock and looking ahead, looking round corners, seeing what’s coming next and taking the public on that journey.”

A COBR emergency meeting will take place at lunchtime on Thursday, after which the UK is expected to escalate the response to the “delay” phase of its coronavirus action plan.

The new measures may include school closures, cancellations of public gatherings and encouraging people to work from home, as well as recommendations of “social distancing”.

“Social distancing” involves avoiding public transport and working from home in hopes of delaying the spread of the virus to give the health industry time to test drugs and push the peak of the outbreak towards the summer.

While the UK prepares to take more stringent measures to deal with coronavirus, other countries have implemented strong travel bans and locked down entire cities.

US President Donald Trump banned all travel from Europe to the US, excluding the UK and Ireland, effective 20 March. The US currently has over 1,200 confirmed cases of the virus.

Elsewhere, Italy has imposed its most severe controls since World War II, shutting down all shops nationwide except supermarkets, food stores and chemists. The Italian government also ordered all companies to close non-essential departments as the number of cases climbed to 12,426.

An expert in infectious diseases said the UK is around two or three weeks behind Italy in terms of growth in cases and the "delay" phase may not be effective if introduced too late.

Dr Michael Tildesley, an associate professor at the University of Warwick, told Euronews: "That is why these kind of measures are being put into place at this point. What they are trying to do is both delay and reduce the height of the peak.

”It potentially reduces the pressures on health services. The challenge with this is that it might need to be sustained for a significant period of time (to be effective)."

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