New city health boss says Atletico match should not have happened

Matt Ashton is clear about one thing – he is his own man with his own ideas.

Liverpool council's new director of public health is understandably keen to avoid repeatedly being mentioned in the same conversations as his father John – the former North West director of Public Health.

The 47-year-old has carved out his own distinguished career and now takes up the position of Liverpool's most senior public health figure at a most crucial period, with 50 people in the city now dead from coronavirus.

But talk of his father is difficult to avoid at the moment.

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Professor John Ashton has been one of the most outspoken critics of the government's approach to tackling the virus, taking to television and media to call out a lack of testing and what he believes was a dangerously delayed decision to lockdown the country when the virus initially arrived.

"Like most people I love my father and am proud of him but like everyone we can get embarrassed by our dads sometimes", says Matt.

He adds: "Dad has a particular position and we are very fortunate to have the benefits of his knowledge and experience during this crisis."

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One thing Matt and his father agree on is that it was a mistake for Liverpool's Champions League match with Atletico Madrid to take place as normal just a few weeks ago.

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John Ashton was one of those to question the logic of encouraging 3,000 Madrid fans to travel from the Spanish capital – where the was already an acute outbreak of Covid-19 – to Liverpool to spend a day drinking in the city's bars before cramming into a packed Anfield.

He has continued to suggest that the match could be a factor in Liverpool's subsequent surge in cases and deaths.

John didn't go to the match that night, his son did.

He said: "Looking back it might not have been a sensible decision, but the national guidance was for the game to go ahead.

Matt Ashton is Liverpool Council's new Director of Public Health

"If we look now at the idea of people coming from other cities with many cases of coronavirus coming to Liverpool for a football match – it was probably a silly decision (for the game to go ahead)."

He added: "It is an assumption, we probably won't know what effect it had because of the lack of testing and contact tracing, but I think a national decision probably needed to be taken yes."

He is not as outspoken as his dad when it comes to the government's approach, but believes things should have happened faster.

He said: "I think it has been a little bit slow.

"I think it took a while for people to realise the seriousness of this, but in recent weeks it has picked up the pace.

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"When the World Health Organisation is saying test, test, test, then why would you not be doing that? I think we need to be testing NHS workers urgently and doing much more testing in the community.

"There's clearly lots more work to do and the time to reflect properly on what was done will come later."

A father-of-two, Matt takes up the crucial role in Liverpool after holding the same position at Sefton Council for the past four years.

In a first for the historic role of Director of Public Health in Liverpool, Matt, who grew up in the city and attended Calderstones School, will be working closely with the University of Liverpool, holding the position of Honorary Professor, Department of Public Health and Policy.

The ideas is that this new joint role will help to ensure that the strategic aims of the department of Public Health and Policy align with the huge practical issues facing the city.

He said: "Working with the university will be really important in terms of the knowledge on offer which will help us to model what is happening in the city.

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Of course when he interviewed and was awarded the job in December, he could never have imagined what the scenario would be when he got going.

For one thing, he is starting the job working from home.

He said: "As the chief adviser on all health issues in the city, it will be my job to work with politicians, the NHS, the universities and advise on the way forward.

"We have already had some really productive meetings over Skype."

In terms of priorities, Matt says he is deeply concerned about outbreaks of coronavirus in the city's care homes after news that six people died last week at the Oak Springs in Wavertree.

He said: "That is definitely a priority area, as is getting the right Personal Protective Equipment both to staff in hospitals and in care homes."

Matt says the top public health job in Liverpool is a 'dream come true', despite the size of the challenge now facing him.

He said the scale of support on offer from people all over the city has been amazing, with thousands volunteering to help the more vulnerable during the crisis.

He added: "I'm not surprised to be honest – but hugely impressed.

"The people of this city have always worked together to help others, look at Hillsborough, look at foodbanks, this spirit is something we are going to need more than ever now."

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