With ministers and officials involved with the country's coronavirus strategy braced for an eventual public inquiry, this week we're being given a glimpse of how it might play out. During a morning broadcast round on Tuesday, Work and Pensions Secretary Thérèse Coffey set the cat among the pigeons when she was asked about mistakes the government may have made.
Coffey replied by saying ministers can 'only make judgments based on the advice' they are given. She went on to say that on issues such as testing capacity, if the scientific advice at the time was 'wrong', she would not be surprised if people think 'we made the wrong decisions'. Those comments were quick to gain traction – with critics claiming Coffey was attempting to scapegoat scientists for the government's U-turn on testing.
During the lunchtime lobby briefing, a No. 10 spokesperson attempted to defuse the row: 'Scientists provide advice to the government, ministers ultimately decide.' However, if the government press conference is anything to go by, it didn't do the trick. What followed was a tense appearance between Environment Secretary George Eustice and Dame Angela McLean, chief science adviser at the MoD. When asked about testing, Dame Angela appeared to come close to criticising the government.
She said that the scientific advice given so far was that 'changes to lockdown need a highly effective track-and-trace system to be in place'. Given changes have been made and no system is yet in place, this raises questions as to whether there is a disconnect. McLean was also clear that any issues with getting a test-and-trace system running could not be blamed on scientific advice. She praised other countries for showing it could be done and described running such a system as 'an entirely operational issue'.
It's clear that this is a row No. 10 does not wish to be having right now. A Downing Street figure has expressed frustration privately at Coffey's comment. However, as we discussed on the Coffee House Shots podcast, while Coffey may have gone off message, what she was saying is the logical implication of what the government is saying – that ministers followed the scientific advice at every turn. Should the government's inquiry strategy be to eventually blame the scientific advice, don't expect the figures who gave it to go quietly.