Professor Sir David King said that the government’s imposition of lockdown measures came “too late” with every day of delay costing lives.
And he said that ministers who pushed ahead with a containment strategy rather than implementing widespread testing and early restrictions on social life had “taken their eyes off the ball, hoping it would somehow blow away”.
Comparing the UK response unfavourably to countries such as Greece and Rwanda, he said the government now needs to “massively” step up measures including testing on a far wider scale.
Prof King, who was chief scientific adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown from 2000-07, said that a report on pandemic preparedness published set out in 2006 the need for swift restrictions on social activities.
“Why we didn’t respond so much sooner once this epidemic broke out in China, I simply don’t know,” he told LBC Radio.
“I say this because in 2006, we published a report on actions needed to deal with a pandemic and in that report we showed that if an outbreak occurred of any new virus of this kind, anywhere in the world, within three months - due to air travel - it would be everywhere in the world.
“That, of course, is what has happened – and it seems that we were unprepared and we didn’t take action.”
He was highly critical of decisions to allow mass gatherings like the Cheltenham horse-racing festival to go ahead as lat as 16 March, warning: “We didn’t manage this until too late and every day’s delay has resulted in further deaths in the United Kingdom.”
Prof King said that the failure to include deaths outside hospitals in official statistics on Covid-19 deaths meant the authorities “haven’t a clue” of the true death toll in the outbreak.
The UK could be facing a “really awful” figure as much as 50 per cent above the rolling total announced each day by Public Health England, he suggested.
Asked why the UK’s response was slower than in other countries, he said: “It goes right back to 2010, when the government came in with a very clear policy to reduce public spending across the board, including the National Health Service.
“I’m afraid these austerity measures did lead to the cutting back on the risk management programmes and clearly this also managed to cause problems with flooding across the UK… For me, this is very upsetting because we had set this preparation process in place, as I say, back in 2006.”
When interviewer Nick Ferrari asked whether “austerity measures cost lives”, Prof King replied: “Absolutely. That is what I’m saying.”
He added: “The government, at this point in time, needs to massively step up measures.
“Until we get testing done on a very much wider scale, we’re not going to begin to manage this.
“If we go around the world and see where there has been better behaviour, it isn’t only in the wealthy countries.
“You go to Greece and the management of the epidemic starting very, very early on has been really astoundingly good. Go to Africa, go to Rwanda, you’ll find the same thing.
“So I think it has been taking the eye off the ball, hoping that it would somehow blow away and we are acting too late, in rugby terms, this is a hospital pass to anyone in the driving seat at this point in time.”
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