Coronavirus: UK will be 'extremely proud' of its response, like the Olympics, claims Lord Bethell

Labour brands comment by health minister ‘tasteless and offensive’ and demands apology

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Sunday 04 October 2020 19:14 BST
Health minister Lord Bethell
Health minister Lord Bethell (AFP via Getty Images)

Labour is demanding an apology after a health minister compared the UK government’s response to Covid-19 to the staging of the Olympics and said it could be “extremely proud” of how it had done.

Lord Bethell admitted that the government had “struggled” to get lists of care homes during the early stages of the crisis and was “caught on the hop” by the surge in demand for coronavirus tests when schools went back at the start of September.

But he said that some “outstanding” elements of the response had not been fully appreciated.

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth branded the remarks “tasteless and offensive”.

“We have witnessed a level of suffering from this virus that was incomprehensible at the start of the year,” said Mr Ashworth.

“For a health minister to suggest we will look back with pride and compare it to a time of national celebration is tasteless and offensive. He should apologise.”

The peer was asked at a fringe event at the Conservative Party’s virtual conference where he thought the UK would rank in the world in terms of its response to the pandemic.

In his answer, he drew a comparison to the preparations made for the London 2012 Olympic Games and this year’s efforts to tackle the deadly virus.

“I think there have been some outstanding pieces of delivery that have not been fully appreciated,” he told the event, hosted by the Centre for Policy Studies.

“And I think it will be like the Olympics, that’s when it’s all over and we look back and reflect, we will actually be extremely proud of ourselves.”

According to the World Health Organisation, the UK ranks fifth in the global table for most deaths, with 42,317, behind the US, Brazil, India and Mexico. It is currently seventh in the world in terms of deaths per 100,000 population, according to analysis by Johns Hopkins University.

Earlier, Lord Bethell admitted the government “struggled” to get hold of a list of all the care homes in the UK earlier on in the crisis.

His admission came as a scathing report by Amnesty International said that a series of “shockingly irresponsible” decisions by government had violated the rights to live, health and non-discrimination of thousands of care home residents in England.

Lord Bethell also revealed the government failed to anticipate a surge in demand for Covid-19 tests when children returned to schools en masse in September.

“I think that the return to schools did catch us on the hop and there was a very understandable concern by both schools and then parents about getting kids tested,” he said.

“That has settled down dramatically and we’re very determined to keep the schools open. But schools and parents, I think, have got the message and we’re now prioritising tests much more clearly.”

The Tory peer hit the headlines last month when he suggested that students returning to university might spread coronavirus “in their bedrooms”.

Later, Lord Bethell outlined how a theoretical “pregnancy test type” device might be used to determine if you have Covid-19 on a daily basis to allow you to go about your day.

He said: “If you brush your teeth and take a test first thing in the morning and it’s negative you’ve got a pretty good chance – and we’re trying to develop the science around this – of not being positive today or tomorrow.

“And that means that you’re enabled – and I think enabled is the key word here – to perhaps go to the pub, go to the theatre, to go to things where social distancing is problematic.

“Even if the test isn’t 100 per cent, if it dramatically reduces the chain of transmission then it will have a huge impact.”

Additional reporting by Press Association

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