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Health & Fitness No10 disowns Cabinet minister Therese Coffey after she blames government coronavirus blunders over testing and care homes on 'wrong' science advice

11:19  20 may  2020
11:19  20 may  2020 Source:   dailymail.co.uk

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Therese Coffey insisted the government had just been following the guidance from experts as she No 10 denies this was the first time it had raised the idea. March 27: Mr Johnson and Matt Hancock Separately, a care home chief blamed delayed advice and testing during a 'critical' period for having

A FURIOUS row broke out today as a minister blamed " wrong advice and wrong science " for the testing shambles which saw Britain abandon its track and trace policy. DWP boss Thérèse Coffey suggested that ministers could only make their decisions on the information they had in front of them

In pictures: Coronavirus outbreak (Photos)

No10 has disowned Cabinet minister Therese Coffey after she blamed government blunders on coronavirus testing and care homes on 'wrong' science advice.

Downing Street heaped praise on its experts and insisted 'ministers decide' after the comments by the Work and Pensions Secretary caused a storm. 

As a furious blame game erupted yesterday, Ms Coffey appeared to try to pass the buck. 

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Pushed on whether the government had made mistakes, she 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. 

Therese Coffey wearing a pink shirt: Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey appeared to pass the buck in a round of interviews yesterday, saying science advice might have been 'wrong' © Provided by Daily Mail Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey appeared to pass the buck in a round of interviews yesterday, saying science advice might have been 'wrong' The intervention triggered a thinly-veiled rebuke from Dame Angela McLean, chief science adviser at the Ministry of Defence, at the daily media briefing last night.

Dame Angela said the advice given to ministers to abandon efforts to track individual cases 'took account of the testing that was available'. 

'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. 

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. 

a person holding a sign © Provided by Daily Mail The admission came after the Commons Science Committee 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. 

Meanwhile, health select committee chairman Jeremy Hunt has told Boris Johnson to be more transparent to show whether politicians have been given the right advice by scientists.

'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.'

Swathes of evidence from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has not been published, while other parts have been released with a long time lag and sections blanked out.

a person riding on the back of a car: Scots Royal Regiment of Scotland take a test sample at a Covid-19 testing centre at Glasgow Airport - but the scheme was lambasted by MPs © Provided by Daily Mail Scots Royal Regiment of Scotland take a test sample at a Covid-19 testing centre at Glasgow Airport - but the scheme was lambasted by MPs

The extraordinary comment came after the incoming president of the Royal Society, Sir Adrian Smith, warned politicians against putting blame on to scientists. 

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. 

Matthew Hancock, Boris Johnson are posing for a picture: 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 © Provided by Daily Mail 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 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 the PM, 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.

George Eustice holding a sign: 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' © Provided by Daily Mail 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' '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 PM is hugely grateful for the hard work and expertise of the UK's world-leading scientists,' the spokesman said. 

Asked about Ms Coffey's intervention, the spokesman pointedly said 'ministers make decisions, scientists advise'. 

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.

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. 

Stay at home as much as possible to stop coronavirus spreading - here is the latest government guidance. If you think you have the virus, don't go to the GP or hospital, stay indoors and get advice online. Only call NHS 111 if you cannot cope with your symptoms at home; your condition gets worse; or your symptoms do not get better after seven days. In parts of Wales where 111 isn't available, call NHS Direct on 0845 46 47. In Scotland, anyone with symptoms is advised to self-isolate for seven days. In Northern Ireland, call your GP.

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