The government has shared a lengthy response to 13 claims made by Channel 4’s Dispatches on their failures amid the coronavirus pandemic.
During the programme, members of the SPI-B committee of behavioural scientists told how they were ‘horrified’ to see Boris Johnson
advocating for shaking hands, while the delay in acquiring ventilators was described as ‘deeply irresponsible’.
Experts also claimed the Prime Minister was opting for a ‘herd immunity’ strategy. An Italian health minister, Pierpaolo Sileri, said Johnson had spoken to Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and told him how he wanted herd immunity on March 13. Sileri said: ‘I remember that after hanging up, I said to myself that I hope Boris Johnson
goes for a lockdown.’
A spokesperson for the government has now dismissed the claims, arguing that they have ‘taken the right steps’ to battle the coronavirus
pandemic and were guided by the ‘advice of experts’ at every stage.
They went on: ‘Instead of accepting the claims of a rushed documentary which set out to find failings rather than to inform, we advise viewers to read the published evidence themselves.’
Dispatches first revealed that behavioural scientists thought it was ‘absolutely bonkers’ for Johnson to advocate hand washing over other protective measures. One scientist said he was ‘frankly horrified’ that the PM could say hand shakes remained okay when it was ‘so much at odds with common sense and scientific information’.
In response, the spokesperson said: ‘The Prime Minister set out on many occasions that he made the decision at the time as a general principle to continue shaking hands with additional precautions including frequent hand washing. He also frequently used social media to urge the public to follow guidance on measures to reduce the spread.’
The show then alleged that at the start of the pandemic, Public Health England was only able to cope with five new cases of coronavirus
a week, while there were only 300 contact tracing experts at work. They said the system was abandoned on March 12, but the government has denied this was the case.
The spokesperson said contact tracing ‘did not stop’ but instead focused on specific settings, such as care homes or prisons. As lockdown progressed, it then needed to ‘play a much greater role’, resulting in the introduction of NHS Test and Trace.
In another part of Dispatches, Chair of Global Public Health, Professor Devi Sridhar, said she ‘absolutely astonished’ when Professor Chris Whitty announced the government were ending the ‘contain’ phase of their approach to the pandemic. She accused the government of ‘just letting the virus go’.
Epidemiology physician Professor Gabriel Scally then also told how he had despaired at government messages, stating: ‘Herd immunity can only mean one thing, it means massive numbers of people getting the virus and massive numbers of people dying. We will eventually get herd immunity but over the bodies of lots of dead people.’
In response to both the alleged phone call with Conte and Prof Scally’s comments, the spokesperson said: ‘The Government has been very clear that herd immunity has never been our policy or goal. Other major European countries implemented lockdown measures at a similar point in the curve of the epidemic to the UK.’
Earlier in the programme, Sunday Times journalist Jonathan Calvert claimed that Johnson had not been taking on his full workload while at Chevening in February with his partner Carrie Symonds. He said aides had been told not to make documents too long for the PM as otherwise he ‘wouldn’t read them’.
The government responded by saying that the Sunday Times article written by Mr Calvert had ‘contained a series of falsehoods and errors’ and said it ‘actively misrepresented the enormous amount of work which was going on’ at that time.
They added: ‘The Prime Minister has been at the forefront of the response, providing leadership and direction during a hugely challenging period for the country.’
The government went on to deny claims they had built ventilators as late as mid March, stating that ‘everyone who has needed a ventilator during this unprecedented pandemic has had access to one’.
They also denied that evidence suggested the Cheltenham Festival and a Liverpool Champion’s League game would lead to more deaths. The spokesperson said: ‘These events took place within clear government guidance at the time – the SPI-M statement of the 11 March states clearly that the direct impact of stopping large public events on the spread of the epidemic is low.
‘The decision to go ahead with the festival was taken by the racecourse and was operating within clear public health guidance at the time. In view of the decision to proceed, The Director of Public Health at Gloucestershire County Council and her team provided advice to the racecourse in relation to additional hygiene measures that they could put in place for racegoers and staff.’