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Minister — blame the scientists: Government blunders down to ‘being given wrong advice’

Testing times: Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance (left) and chief medical officer Chris Whitty PICTURE: EPA

A GOVERNMENT minister tried to pin the blame for blunders during the virus crisis on scientists giving ‘the wrong advice’, as figures suggested Covid-19 has killed 44,000 in the UK.

Work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey hit out after a report by MPs said it had been a big mistake to abandon testing people outside of hospitals on March 12, when the pandemic was at its most rampant here.

As it emerged that unemployment claims have surged by 69 per cent to 2.1million, the science and technology committee said more testing would have allowed the threat to be contained more quickly. But Ms Coffey pointed the finger at advisers such as chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty and chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance. ‘We can only make judgments and decisions based on the information and advice that we have at the time,’ she told Kay Burley on Sky News. ‘If the science advice at the time was wrong, I am not surprised people think we made the wrong decision.’

On defensive: Minister Therese Coffey

MPs on the science and technology committee said the decision to stop testing people in the community had been the ‘most consequential’ one of the whole crisis. Committee chairman Greg Clarke said university and private sector labs made repeated offers to help — but officials kept things in house and ended up deciding large-scale testing couldn’t be done.

‘Capacity drove strategy, rather than strategy driving capacity,’ he added.

The committee criticised authorities including Public Health England. But that prompted a rare intervention by PHE chief Duncan Selbie, who said decisions on testing had been led by Matt Hancock’s Department of Health.

‘PHE did not constrain or seek to control any laboratory either public, university or commercial from conducting testing,’ he added. Ms Coffey’s defence of the government came as it emerged Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificates of 39,071 people in England and Wales who died no later than May 8.

Taking into account figures from Scotland and Northern Ireland, and fatalities reported since May 8 by hospitals and care homes, there are likely to have been at least 44,000 victims. The figure is higher than the one announced daily by the government as it includes suspected cases. The lower toll — deaths in care settings confirmed by a test — rose by another 545 yesterday to 35,341.

Virus testing outside hospitals was dropped after Prof Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College London, had warned more than 500,000 people could die unless the government focused on protecting the NHS. But it came as countries including Germany and South Korea, which have seen far fewer deaths, were ramping up testing.

Three weeks passed before Mr Hancock said it would be rolled out on a large scale. Dame Angela McLean, the deputy scientific adviser, said last night: ‘At the time, the right thing to do with the capacity we had was to concentrate on hospital.’