As It Happens

U.K.'s COVID-19 response called 'inadequate, incomplete and really somewhat depressing'

John Ashton, a former regional director of public health for northwest England, warns that the country faces a future of steadily increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths. 

John Ashton, a former regional director of public health for northwest England, issues dire warning

Former public health official John Ashton says that U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, shown here at a press briefing on Tuesday with Chief scientific officer Patrick Vallance, failed to take charge when the COVID-19 coronavirus started to enter the country in February. (Matt Dunham/The Associated Press)


U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson says his government will do "whatever it takes" to face the COVID-19 challenge — a reversal from just a few days ago when the nation's response seemed dramatically out of step with other countries around the world.

With schools open in the country as of Tuesday, questions remain about the government's willingness to take meaningful action to mandate social distancing. 

John Ashton, a former regional director of public health for northwest England, told As It Happens host Carol Off that the government's response has been "inadequate, incomplete and really somewhat depressing."

Here is part of their conversation. 

What exactly has the United Kingdom been attempting to do? 

Well, I'm puzzled about it myself. We started off with containment, which is perfectly reasonable and what you should be doing, with lots of testing, screening, isolating and quarantining. [But] we were slow to get that started. 

The prime minister didn't take charge at the beginning of February when this really started to enter the country and COBRA, which is the Cabinet Office Briefing Room, where all the senior politicians and key people they get together when you have a major national emergency, didn't get convened straight away.

So they hadn't done a lot of the planning, they hadn't looked at the capacity for testing. And they became over-reliant on a statistical model, which was trying to predict the course of the epidemic. I believe what's happened is because they didn't have adequate data going in, they got it wrong. 

So quite recently they were saying that we were maybe a month behind Italy. And then what happened just at the end of last week is that it began to be clear that we're now on a sharp upward curve. 

We went from having had 10 deaths last Thursday and just 11 on Friday, [to it] doubling on Saturday and then doubling again over the next two days. It still seems to be doubling every couple of days. We're now up to 71 deaths a week after we were on 10. 

Commuters are seen on a busy tube train at rush hour in London on Tuesday, despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling on people avoid all non-essential contacts and travel. (Ian Hinchliffe/PA/The Associated Press)

United Kingdom officials were floating the idea that there is a kind of herd immunity, implying it might be beneficial for some people to become infected and immunize parts of the population. Is there merit to that idea? 

I think what was going on here was that they were concocting a story to make it seem as though what had happened in not getting on top of it in those early weeks was part of a plan.

They were quoting a figure of 60 per cent [infected], which was strange to me because we tend to aim for over 90 per cent for herd immunity with other infections. 

This suggestion — that it was OK to let people get the infection and accepting an excess death rate — was totally hammered [by the media] over the weekend. So they backtracked off that yesterday. That was the so-called mitigation strategy and now they've gone completely against it. 

The communications from the government has been very poor, there's a lack of trust in what's going on and now we face a future of steadily increasing numbers of cases and deaths. 

The Imperial College team in your country that's predicting as many as 250,000 deaths in Britain under this mitigation policy. Was there a sense that in the government that these deaths were inevitable and there was nothing they could do to stop it? 

I think they were putting this across in a sense of inevitability about a large number of deaths. I mean, the reality is that we are looking at a large number of cases over the coming weeks. 

And it's now estimated we will need seven or eight times as many critical care beds as we've actually got if the epidemic curve continues on its upward track. As this epidemic evolves, it will be impossible for even really sick people to be admitted to hospital. 

So engaging with the public, building capacity, supporting community organizations through the churches, through the women's groups, through community groups and so on, would have been a good thing to get into at an earlier stage. It's happening now spontaneously over the last three or four days all over the country.

I want to ask you about some of the strategies... because the U.K. government is encouraging people not to go to bars and restaurants. But the government has stopped short of closing schools, which puts the U.K. alongside only Belarus in all of Europe to have their schools open today. So what are we to make of that?

It's difficult to know what to make of that. I think the schools will be closing tomorrow or on Thursday. They're already closing by default. Parents are keeping their children off, staff are taking sickness absence or they're isolating themselves at home. 

A woman walks from Leicester Square wearing a face mask on Saint Patrick's Day in central London, which would normally be popular with tourists. (Matt Dunham/The Associated Press)

What we have here is, historically, the Conservative Party has set its face against what it calls the nanny state. You know, as the great defender of libertarian values and democracy, it doesn't like to be seen to be doing anything to take away personal freedoms.

But at a time like this, it's a war against the virus and it requires firm measures to be taken to get on top of it. And the government has a responsibility to do whatever it takes to get on top of this.

Written by Adam Jacobson. Produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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