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Ex-health secretary Jeremy Hunt says ministers SHOULD publish Sage advice

Jeremy Hunt has ratcheted up the pressure on Downing Street to publish its scientific advice and put an end to Whitehall’s coronavirus blame game.

A flurry of finger-pointing erupted yesterday as both ministers and experts shirked responsibility for blunders which have hamstrung the ability to fight the crisis.

The decision to abandon contact tracing early in the outbreak is quickly emerging as a political hot potato, with government figures scrambling to pass the buck.

Former Health Secretary Mr Hunt, who has been critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic, turned the screw tighter last night and urged Number 10 make public the advice it receives from Sage.

The one-time Tory leadership contender told Boris Johnson to mirror the model displayed by the Bank of England and opt for complete transparency. 

‘The only way to resolve this is to publish the scientific advice ministers were acting on,’ Mr Hunt told the Times.

‘We can’t possibly know whether government was following the science if we don’t know the advice they were given. If you publish the advice it gives a chance for other scientists to scrutinise it.’

Sage, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, which reports its advice to the Prime Minister, does not immediately publish its guidance and has come under fire for secrecy.

The covert nature of the advice has muddied the waters over whether the buck stops with politicians or scientists for a string of mistakes.

Jeremy Hunt has turned the screw on Downing Street to publish its scientific advice and put an end to Whitehall’s coronavirus blame game

Dame Angela McLean, chief science adviser at the Ministry of Defence, said the advice given to ministers to abandon efforts to track individual cases ‘took account of the testing that was available’

The blame game kicked off yesterday when Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey broke cover to lament ministers being given ‘wrong advice’.

Pushed on whether the government had made mistakes, Ms Coffey told Sky News that ministers could ‘only make judgements and decisions based on the information and advice that we have at the time’. 

‘If the science advice at the time was wrong I am not surprised people think we made the wrong decision,’ she said.   

The row escalated further when Dame Angela McLean, chief science adviser at the Ministry of Defence, said the advice given to ministers to abandon efforts to track individual cases ‘took account of the testing that was available’.

At the Downing Street briefing yesterday, she said: ‘With the testing we had the right thing to do was to focus it on people who were really sick in hospital… it was the right thing to do at the time.’ 

She said the ‘scientific advice would be that you need to have a rapid and reliable testing system’. Asked if that was now true, Dame Angela replied: ‘I think it is getting better.’

Environment Secretary George Eustice stopped short of conceding explicitly that policy was driven by limits on testing capability, merely saying efforts were made to ‘build the capacity’. ‘We were building it very rapidly from a very early stage,’ he said. 

The admission came after the MPs said hospital staff, care home workers and residents were put at risk because of a lack of for screening ‘when the spread of the virus was at its most rampant’.

Routine testing for those with symptoms was abandoned on March 12, when the government shifted to its ‘delay’ phase, with checks reserved for hospital patients and health staff. 

But the cross-party MPs said the failure to ramp up testing for the disease was the ‘most consequential’ error in the crisis, and crippled efforts to trace, track and isolate Britons with the disease. 

Anger is also rising on the Tory backbenches, with one MP likening the response to the famous Morecambe and Wise comedy sketch where composer Andre Previn tells Eric he is ‘playing all the wrong notes’ in a piano piece, and he responds that he is ‘playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order’.  

Scots Royal Regiment of Scotland take a test sample at a Covid-19 testing centre at Glasgow Airport - but the scheme was lambasted today

Scots Royal Regiment of Scotland take a test sample at a Covid-19 testing centre at Glasgow Airport – but the scheme was lambasted today

Boris Johnson sits at the top of a complex chain of experts who have shaped crucial decisions on the coronavirus crisis. As chair of Cobra and the Cabinet, the PM has the final say on the UK’s approach – but ministers insist they have faithfully followed the scientific advice at all times. The government’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Officer Patrick Vallance are the main ‘gateways’ through which expertise is channelled to the PM from a variety of scientific committees and groups

Boris Johnson sits at the top of a complex chain of experts who have shaped crucial decisions on the coronavirus crisis. As chair of Cobra and the Cabinet, the PM has the final say on the UK’s approach – but ministers insist they have faithfully followed the scientific advice at all times. The government’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Officer Patrick Vallance are the main ‘gateways’ through which expertise is channelled to the PM from a variety of scientific committees and groups 

Environment Secretary George Eustice stopped short of conceding explicitly that policy was driven by limits on testing capability, merely saying efforts were made to 'build the capacity'

Environment Secretary George Eustice stopped short of conceding explicitly that policy was driven by limits on testing capability, merely saying efforts were made to ‘build the capacity’

Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey appeared to pass the buck in a round of interviews this morning, saying science advice might have been 'wrong'

Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey appeared to pass the buck in a round of interviews this morning, saying science advice might have been ‘wrong’

How the UK’s testing regime chaos collapsed into chaos – and the fateful day No 10 halted community testing before the pandemic’s peak

The UK’s testing regime is under the microscope after ministers appeared too slow to act while today the UK still has no fully functioning trace and trace app despite already easing the lockdown. 

March 12 is viewed as the lowest point of the crisis when the Government dropped community testing despite experts around the world warning that testing every case was the only way to cut infections and save lives.

The Government has been damned by MPs for still not explaining who took the decision – or exactly why – although a lack of capacity and a lack of control over the virus’ spread are the likeliest answers.

This is how the testing scandal has unfolded:

January 31: First confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK are two Chinese nationals staying in York while sightseeing. The Department of Health pledges to test anyone who becomes ill with the virus. 

February 1: China reports asymptomatic cases of coronavirus, making the testing of health workers crucial because they could be spreading the virus unknowingly. An outbreak of COVID-19 had already swamped the Diamond Princess cruise ship off Japan. A British man on board would later die.

February 21: As the virus continues to spread across the globe, the UK Government experts conclude at a meeting that the disease is still only a ‘moderate’ threat to the UK. Yet in Lombardy, Italy, clusters of cases began to emerge before the north of the country was engulfed completely.

March 3: South Korea manages to reduce the number of Covid-19 infections to 851 on March 3 by effectively tracking people infected with COVID-19 using an app and testing. By the end of March there would be less than 20 cases per day.

Doctors urge other countries to adopt their model. 

March 11: Health Secretary Matt Hancock says he is ‘rolling out a big expansion of testing’ but fails to give a timetable and says 1,215 people have been tested for coronavirus in the UK. 

March 12: 24 hours later Boris Johnson was accused of mixed messages after saying that health workers will no longer test people for the virus in their homes, only when they are admitted to hospital.

Anyone with symptoms, but able to care for themselves at home, would not be tested and it marked the end of the policy to ‘contact trace’ everyone with symptoms on, as the government’s response moves from ‘containment’ into a ‘delay’ phase. 

Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said: ‘It is no longer needed to identify every case, so we will pivot testing capacity to identify people in hospitals with symptoms to ensure they don’t pass it on.’

Critics have said that this is the day the Government lost control and conceded defeat on testing as cases increased and they didn’t have the capacity to test every person.

Downing Street  has always refused to say who took the fateful decision to halt testing in the community on March 12, with many claiming it was this decision that led to it sweeping through communities and care homes.

March 13: Chief Scientific Officer Patrick Vallance suggests the strategy is not to ‘suppress’ coronavirus completely but ‘reduce the peak’ as up to 60 per cent get infected. He says that means the UK will ‘build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease’. 

March 16: Boris Johnson urges Britons to follow ‘social distancing’ guidelines as well as isolating when they have symptoms, in a change of policy after modelling found the death toll could be much higher than previously estimated. 

The WHO warns on slow progress with testing, saying you ‘cannot fight a fire blindfolded’ and urges countries to ‘test, test, test’.

March 17: There was more confusion as Patrick Vallance tells a Commons committee testing numbers should be higher. ‘I think we need a big increase in testing, and that is what I am pushing for very hard.’ 

March 18: Amid growing criticism, the PM declares that there will be a big expansion of tests from under 5,000 a day to 25,000. He also sets an ambition of 250,000 tests a day, although this includes potential mass antibody tests for whether people previously had the disease.

March 21: Downing Street sends an email to research institutions begging for machines needed to process testing samples. No10 denies this was the first time it had raised the idea. 

March 27: Mr Johnson and Matt Hancock announce they have tested positive for coronavirus. Prof Whitty goes into self-isolation with symptoms.  

March 29: Cabinet ministers Matt Hancock and Michael Gove hail news that the UK is now carrying out 10,000 tests a day. 

April 1: It emerges that the UK has still not carried out 10,000 tests in a day, despite apparently having the capacity to do so.

In Germany a single lab in Cologne was carrying out 10,000 tests itself. Germany would soon ramp up to 500,000 tests a week. 

April 2: Matt Hancock sets a target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month. At the same time a goal of 25,000 tests a day by the middle of April is quietly dropped.

April 5: The PM’s official account causes confusion by tweeting that the target is for 100,000 people to be tested a day, rather than 100,000 tests as other ministers have suggested. Many people need more than one test in a day for clinical reasons, such as to confirm results. 

April 6: Mr Johnson is admitted to hospital as his symptoms fail to subside and would later spend days in intensive care.

April 30: Mr Hancock declares victory with 122,000 tests in a day. However, it emerges that the government has been counting tests posted out but not actually completed.

That is despite Mr Johnson and others stating the numbers are for tests ‘carried out’.

The numbers tumble below the target again in the following days, although the government insists capacity remains in place.

May 5: Trials of an NHSX app to track who has been in proximity to infected people begin on the Isle of Wight.  Chief scientific officer Patrick Vallance admits ramping up testing earlier would have been ‘beneficial’. 

May 18: It emerges the app will not be ready for national use by ‘mid-May’ as planned, although Downing Street insists track and trace can start without it.

Mr Hancock announces that everyone over the age of five displaying coronavirus symptoms can now apply for a test, although key workers and patients will be prioritised. 

May 19:  A furious blame game erupted over who was to blame for coronavirus blunders on testing and care homes were down to ‘wrong’ science advice.

The Science and Technology Committee found hospital staff, care home workers and residents were put at risk because of a lack of capacity for screening ‘when the spread of the virus was at its most rampant’.

The Department of Health and  Public Health England have been pointing the finger at each other.

The ability to detect and crack down on cases is seen as crucial to getting the economy up and running, with unions warning workplaces and schools cannot be safe until the regime is in place. 

The committee hit out at Public Health England for the ‘pivotal decision’ to shun smaller labs and failure to make a ‘rigorous assessment’ of countries such as South Korea and Germany that had successfully ramped up testing.  

But PHE chief Duncan Selbie shot back that it was ‘not responsible’ for the testing strategy, which ‘has been led by the Department of Health and Social Care’. 

He insisted ‘any testing facility with the right technology and containment’ could have carried out checks after security restrictions were lowered on March 3. 

GMB’s Piers Morgan also berated Ms Coffey for mistakenly claiming that 100,000 people had been tested on a ‘handful’ of days. In fact, while the government says it has hit the 100,000 tests a day target, the number of people checked is lower as many need to be done more than once for clinical reasons.  

In a letter to Boris Johnson, committee chairman Greg Clark identified a series of lessons to learn from the UK’s handling of the outbreak.

He said capacity must ‘urgently’ be built up for contact tracing, a key tactic in helping ease existing lockdown measures.

Mr Clark said: ‘Testing capacity has been inadequate for most of the pandemic so far.

‘Capacity was not increased early enough or boldly enough. Capacity drove strategy, rather than strategy driving capacity.’

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

The goal was reached for the first time on April 30 but sparked accusations the figures had been inflated, as they included tests which had been posted out but not completed.

The milestone has been reached a handful of times since.

Mr Clark said PHE had repeatedly failed to answer questions over the ‘pivotal’ decision to ignore mass testing in favour of other tactics.

He 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.

‘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 care home workers could not be tested at a time when the spread of the virus was at its most rampant.

Mr Clark wrote: ‘Had the public bodies responsible in this space themselves taken the initiative at the beginning of February, or even the beginning of March, rather than waiting until the Secretary of State imposed a target on April 2, knowledge of the spread of the pandemic and decisions about the response to it may have made more options available to decision makers at earlier stages.’

But in a statement to the BBC, Mr Selbie said the testing strategy was not PHE’s responsibility. 

‘PHE did not constrain or seek to control any laboratory either public, university or commercial from conducting testing,’ he said.  

Downing Street rejected the criticism over testing.

‘We set up the largest diagnostic testing industry in British history from scratch in a matter of weeks,’ the PM’s spokesman said. 

The spokesman also dodged questions about Ms Coffey’s intervention, stressing ‘ministers make decisions, scientists advise’. 

‘The PM is hugely grateful for the hard work and expertise of the UK’s world-leading scientists,’ the spokesman said. 

The Science committee identified concerns over the transparency of its Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergency) membership amid concerns political interference could affect the guidance.

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’.

Separately, a care home chief blamed delayed advice and testing during a ‘critical’ period for having spread coronavirus throughout homes.

Barchester Healthcare chief executive Dr Pete Calveley, who said around two thirds of his homes have had Covid-19 cases, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘We’ve had several weeks where their first reaction was to protect the NHS, where they wanted to discharge a lot of clients from hospital to make sure there was capacity for what they anticipated was a surcharge.

‘And that meant a lot of people being discharged from care homes rather quickly who hadn’t been tested and often we’ve seen where we’ve been doing large testing of care homes where asymptomatic staff, and particularly residents, are actually positive and therefore are freely moving through the home are infecting other residents and staff without anybody knowing about it until too late.’

Dr Calveley said there was a ‘critical’ period of up to four weeks before testing was available and advice was issued for staff to wear professional masks and isolation for new admissions.

‘None of that advice came out until it was probably too late,’ he said.

One former minister told the Telegraph the government’s handling of the crisis was reminiscent of the famous Morecambe and Wise sketch featuring André Previn, the pianist and composer.

The MP said: ‘It’s like when Previn turns to Eric and says: ‘You’re not playing the right notes’ and Eric grabs him by the lapels and replies: ‘I am playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order’. Everything has been the wrong way round.’

On the plan for a 14-day quarantine period on arrivals to the UK, they added: ‘That should have happened at the beginning of the crisis, not at the end.’

Ms Coffey defended the Government’s coronavirus testing record as having improved from a ‘standing start’.

Responding to the Commons Science and Technology Committee’s criticism, she told BBC Breakfast: ‘We had a small amount of capacity at the very start, it was solely based on Public Health England’s capability of being able to have about 2,000 tests a day.

‘We had little capacity early on, I recognise that, we have got a lot of capacity now.

‘I think from pretty much a standing start, roughly in about mid-February I think it was, to get to a capacity and actual tests being done of 100,000 within about six weeks, I think is pretty full-on and actually I think something we can look on with pride.’

The row came as Downing Street announced the NHS contact tracing app – trailed on the Isle of Wight this month – will be launched across the country in the ‘coming weeks’.  

Former Conservative Party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith has called on Boris Johnson to start getting the economy working again and to reconsider the two-metre social distancing rule, after dire benefits claim figures show the highest rise since records began 50 years ago.

The Tory MP told Today that unemployment depends ‘first and foremost (on) how quickly are we able to get the economy moving’?

‘We need to get that moving as quick as possible and I’ve certainly been arguing that for some weeks now,’ he said.

Ministers ‘must stop claiming they are following the science’ 

Ministers should stop claiming they are ‘following the science’ and stop passing the buck in the battle against coronavirus, a leading scientist has demanded. 

Sir Adrian Smith, 73, a statistician and the the incoming president of the Royal Society, said politicians are justifying their measures by saying they are following expert advice to appear decisive. 

He warned that blame should not be passed to scientists as the government are the ones implementing and making decisions in the battle against coronavirus. 

Sir Adrian also blasted the government’s decision to make decisions behind closed doors, adding ‘openness and transparency would have been a better option’. 

A full list of members of the government’s secretive SAGE committee, which has advised on tackling the virus, was only published two weeks ago and minutes from its meetings have still to be released. 

Furious MPs have previously demanded research papers underpinning the government’s coronavirus strategy are immediately released. 

On social distancing, Sir Iain said ‘we’re the only country certainly in Europe that I know of’ that uses the two-metre rule.

‘I think when it comes to the hospitality sector, I think we do need to look at it very carefully,’ he said.

‘So we do need to look at how they manage that process and give them some flexibility. 

Meanwhile, ministers have been told to stop claiming they are ‘following the science’ and stop passing the buck in the battle against coronavirus. 

Sir Adrian Smith, 73, a statistician and the the incoming president of the Royal Society, said politicians are justifying their measures by saying they are following expert advice to appear decisive. 

He warned that blame should not be passed to scientists as the government are the ones implementing and making decisions in the battle against coronavirus. 

Sir Adrian also blasted the government’s decision to make decisions behind closed doors, adding ‘openness and transparency would have been a better option’. 

A full list of members of the government’s secretive SAGE committee, which has advised on tackling the virus, was only published two weeks ago and minutes from its meetings have still to be released. 

Furious MPs have previously demanded research papers underpinning the government’s coronavirus strategy are immediately released. 

The latest slides released bythe government tonight show the state of the coronavirus outbreak in the UK

The latest slides released bythe government tonight show the state of the coronavirus outbreak in the UK

PHE said it was 'not responsible' for the testing strategy, which 'has been led by the Department of Health and Social Care' - Matt Hancock's (pictured) department

PHE chief Dunan Selbie

PHE chief Dunan Selbie (right) said it was ‘not responsible’ for the testing strategy, which ‘has been led by the Department of Health and Social Care’ – Matt Hancock’s (left) department

Abandoned to their fate: Elderly hospital patients with COVID-19 symptoms were discharged into care homes WITHOUT tests before virus killed 10,000 pensioners – despite warnings from around the world 

Care home chief blames lack of testing for spread 

A care home chief has blamed delayed advice and testing during a ‘critical’ period for having spread coronavirus throughout homes.

Barchester Healthcare chief executive Dr Pete Calveley, who said around two thirds of his homes have had Covid-19 cases, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘We’ve had several weeks where their first reaction was to protect the NHS, where they wanted to discharge a lot of clients from hospital to make sure there was capacity for what they anticipated was a surcharge.

‘And that meant a lot of people being discharged from care homes rather quickly who hadn’t been tested and often we’ve seen where we’ve been doing large testing of care homes where asymptomatic staff, and particularly residents, are actually positive and therefore are freely moving through the home are infecting other residents and staff without anybody knowing about it until too late.’

Dr Calveley said there was a ‘critical’ period of up to four weeks before testing was available and advice was issued for staff to wear professional masks and isolation for new admissions.

‘None of that advice came out until it was probably too late,’ he said.

Elderly hospital patients who had coronavirus symptoms were discharged into care homes without being tested despite warnings from around the world the crisis could grip the sector, industry bosses revealed today.

Professor Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, told MPs the decision may be partly to blame for allowing COVID-19 to race through homes and kill more than 10,000 residents.

Routine testing for those with symptoms was abandoned on March 12, when the Government shifted to its ‘delay’ phase, with swabs reserved for critically ill hospital patients and NHS staff. 

Professor Green said emphasis on saving the NHS led to elderly people with underlying health conditions – the most at risk of dying from the disease – being abandoned.

Prioritising hospitals over care homes also resulted in residents having their medical support cut off and PPE supplies for the sector being disrupted, according to Professor Green.

He told the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee today that ‘very clear national strategy’ was now needed from Government to prevent more waves of the virus ravaging the sector.  

Adelina Comas-Herrera, assistant research fellow at the London School of Economics, told the committee that there was ‘plenty of evidence’ in March that care homes could be devastated by the crisis. 

She said US research had shown that coronavirus patients were regularly asymptomatic, highlighting the need for stringent testing. 

An Office for National Statistics report revealed today that at least 11,000 COVID-19 deaths occurred in England and Wales

An Office for National Statistics report revealed today that at least 11,000 COVID-19 deaths occurred in England and Wales

However this is a modest estimate because it does not include care home deaths in Scotland and Northern Ireland or residents who were moved to hospital before they passed away

However this is a modest estimate because it does not include care home deaths in Scotland and Northern Ireland or residents who were moved to hospital before they passed away

It comes as an Office for National Statistics report revealed today that at least 11,000 COVID-19 deaths occurred in England and Wales. However this is a modest estimate because it does not include care home deaths in Scotland and Northern Ireland or residents who were moved to hospital before they passed away.

Researchers at the London School of Economics estimate at least 22,000 care home residents have died with coronavirus – half of the UK’s overall fatalities.

Meanwhile, a damning Government study leaked today also revealed that untested temporary staff may have been inadvertently spreading the illness in the sector’s scramble to fill vacancies left by workers in self-isolation.

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk


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