Ministers ‘behaving like 19th-century colonialists playing a five-day game of cricket’, says Prof John Ashton
Sarah Boseley Health editor
A leading public health expert has launched a devastating critique of the government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak in the UK, saying it is too little too late, lacks transparency and fails to mobilise the public.
Prof John Ashton, a former regional director of public health for north-west England, lambasted a lack of preparation and openness from the government and contrasted Britain’s response to that of Hong Kong.
“Right at the beginning of February, they [Hong Kong] adopted a total approach to this, which is what we should have done five weeks ago ourselves. They took a decision to work to three principles – of responding promptly, staying alert, working in an open and transparent manner,” he told the Guardian.
“Our lot haven’t been working openly and transparently. They’ve been doing it in a (non) smoke-filled room and just dribbling out stuff. The chief medical officer only appeared in public after about two weeks. Then they have had a succession of people bobbing up and disappearing. Public Health England’s been almost invisible.
“Boris Johnson should have convened Cobra himself over a month ago and had regular meetings with the chief medical officer with the evidence. The thing should have been fronted up nationally by one person who could be regarded as the trusted voice and who could have been interrogated regularly. That’s not happened.”Q&A
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Ashton was speaking before a Cobra meeting on Thursday afternoon, which was expected to pave the way for new social distancing measures. An increasing number of European countries, including Ireland, have taken steps to close schools, limit gatherings and place restrictions on transportation.
He accused the government of failing to understand public health, which has been undermined over the past 10 years by cuts in funding of 30% to local authorities, which were given responsibility for it under policy changes made by Andrew Lansley, the former health secretary.
There were no strategies for protecting the vulnerable and there had been a failure to engage the public. “We have a superficial prime minister who has got no grasp of public health,” Ashton said. “Our lot are behaving like 19th-century colonialists playing a five-day game of cricket.
“This virus will find the weak points. You can’t just plan this from an office in Whitehall. It’s pathetic. The government doesn’t seem to understand classic public health. You need to be out and about. You need to get your hands dirty – though preferably gloved and using frequent gel,” he said.
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He warned that the NHS was not in a position to cope with the large numbers of people who could become seriously ill. “It’s a joke when they put up people to say they are really on top of it and if it spreads at a community level the NHS will cope, it’s always coped. The hospitals are full at the moment, A&Es are full, beds are full, intensive care is full.”
Current contingency plans assume that up to 80% of people could get infected and 4% of those are likely to have serious illness. “That translates into big numbers and there will not be enough intensive facilities for them and people will have to be home-nursed,” Ashton said.
“What the government should have been doing over these last weeks, which they’ve thrown away, is to encourage neighbourhoods, communities, supported by the local public health directors and a joined-up NHS.
“They should have been encouraging people to have their own family plans about how they will maintain the family show on the road, who will be taking the kids to school, how do you entertain them in the Easter holidays? They should have been much clearer, sooner, about making it clear that people shouldn’t be travelling so they could cancel their holidays and get their money back on the insurance.Advertisement
“They haven’t done any of that. Who’s going to look after elderly people – stop them having to go out, do their shopping for them? People should have been doing that planning – they should have been pointed in that direction by the government. There’s been no discussion about that at all.”
Ashton, a Liverpool fan, said if football matches were held in empty stadiums, there was a risk that fans would congregate in pubs instead. “Clubs that have their own TV channels need to make viewing of the games free to everybody, so people can watch them at home,” he said.