Robert Peston

The government’s coronavirus mantra avoids its systemic problem

Ministers were using the expert advice of the scientists and epidemiologists as a reason not to take responsibility

The government's coronavirus mantra avoids its systemic problem
Boris Johnson visiting a laboratory at the beginning of March, Credit: Getty
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Paul Marshall makes the compelling point that mistakes have almost certainly been made by scientists and Public Health England. However, in the British system, power lies not with the scientists and officials, but with elected politicians.

And I have been concerned since the start of this outbreak that ministers were using the expert advice of the scientists and epidemiologists, and the recommendations of the assorted expert committees, as a reason not to take responsibility for life-and-death decisions.

‘We're following the science’ has been the ministerial mantra and cliché of this crisis. And if we've learned anything in this crisis it is the limits of scientific knowledge in respect of a new virus.

What matters, I think, is not the precise date of the lockdown. We won't know for some time whether these unprecedented restrictions on our freedoms were implemented too early, too late or just about the right time.

But what we do know, beyond reasonable doubt, is that it was eminently possible to increase investment in testing capacity many weeks earlier than happened, and it should have been possible to learn there was not enough PPE protective clothing equipment for all healthcare workers in hospitals, care homes and assorted public services.

The big point, as I said last night, is that ministers were well aware in the second week of February that there was a very real risk that a devastating epidemic was coming our way.

As I mentioned, on 11 February I was briefed by a senior member of the government that ‘we should know within a fortnight if we are looking at pandemic in UK. If there is a pandemic, the peak will be March, April, May. The marginally better news is mortality rate is looking less than 2%. And for most people rest and isolation will lead to recovery. But the risk is 60% of the population getting it. With a mortality rate of perhaps just over 1%, we are looking at not far off 500,000 deaths’.

I sent those notes of my conversation with that senior government member to colleagues at ITV and ITV News, so that it would condition our coverage.

The reason I am dredging the notes up now is not to prove that the government ignored a certain catastrophe.

What I was told by that government source more than two months ago looks chillingly prophetic, but at the time ministers did not know whether they could shield the UK from a major outbreak of Covid-19. They were hoping for the best. But they were acutely aware of the worst.

So the question is whether, in the absence of certainty but the presence of a known catastrophic risk of devastating outbreak, it would have been sensible to expedite an assessment of the UK's resources to cope with such an outbreak and correct the deficiencies in a timelier and earlier fashion.

This would have meant spending public funds. And if Covid-19 had never arrived in scale here, some would have accused the government of wasting that money.

But from today's vantage point, wasting public funds in the cause of public health looks money well wasted.

Hindsight is wonderful. For the avoidance of doubt, this is not me looking to name and shame individuals in government or advising government who may have got it wrong. It is to highlight the gap between the government's capacity to identify a clear and present danger and then take the steps to limit its harm.

This looks like a systemic problem. It happened in the run up to the banking crisis too.

Lessons need to be learned.

Robert Peston is ITV's Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his ITV News blog

Written byRobert Peston

Robert Peston is Political Editor of ITV News and host of the weekly political discussion show Peston. This post originally appeared on his ITV News blog

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