"Government chose morally wrong crisis strategy," public health chair tells James O'Brien

22 May 2020, 11:24 | Updated: 22 May 2020, 11:58

By Fiona Jones

A public health professor who predicted a pandemic tells James O'Brien why the government made "morally wrong" choices when tackling it.

Edinburgh University's Global Public Health chair Devi Sridhar told James: "The biggest mistake the government made was abandoning containment on 12 March and stopping testing in the community.

"Countries that have pursued their testing and tracing throughout their outbreaks and have tried to build up their capacity alongside have done much much better."

James said: "We were told they were following the science and as things fray and fall apart subsequently since that day in March, it would appear that decision was taken simply because we didn't have the kit. Does that tally with your understanding?"

Professor Devi pointed out that Britain is one of the richest countries in the world and countries like Vietnam and Senegal have managed it. What we needed, she said, was "political will and a clear strategy from the start."

"The biggest mistake the government made was abandoning containment on 12 March and stopping testing in the community"
"The biggest mistake the government made was abandoning containment on 12 March and stopping testing in the community". Picture: PA/LBC

She reflected that in the early stages of the virus it was treated like the flu by the scientific community; experts questioned whether it should be allowed to "go through" the country, people could to build up immunity to the disease and the economy could be kept going, familiarised in the media as herd immunity.

"To try herd immunity without a vaccine and without a treatment means a lot of people will die and largely elderly people and those who are vulnerable and I think that's a moral choice governments need to make.

"I think it is personally very wrong, but I guess in government it'd be great if there was at least honesty," Professor Devi said, citing Sweden's open policy with the public and encouraging national debate.

Professor Devi said it was predictable there would be a pandemic: "What was unpredictable were the two countries that would struggle would be the UK and the United States, given these are the two that are seen as the exemplars of preparedness."

For six weeks between January and March, Public Health England conducted contact tracing, where they would alert people if they were at risk of infection. They contacted over 4,000 people while the project was running.

However, they stopped on 12th March, stating that it was no longer an effective method because community transmission was so widespread.

A PHE spokesperson that they were halting their contact tracing programme because "with such a level of sustained community transmission there is limited value in doing so".

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