Professor says government ‘arrogant and incompetent’ over Covid

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The UK's coronavirus death toll could have been halved without the government's "incompetent and arrogant" handling of the crisis, a Liverpool public health expert has claimed.

About 116,000 UK lives have been lost to Covid-19 over the last 11 months, with the true current figure estimated to probably be 20,000 higher still.

But Professor John Ashton, a former northwest regional public health director, is of the strong belief our pandemic death toll would stand at around the 65,000 mark, similar to Germany, if a wholly different approach had been followed.

In a wide-ranging interview with the ECHO, he detailed his view on a litany of mistakes from Whitehall which has resulted in Britain being among the countries in the world worst affected by the deadly coronavirus.

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The 73-year-old condemned the government's failed test and trace system, the hesitation over lockdowns, and the centralisation of dealing with the crisis from London, rather than at a regional and local level as among some of the worst blunders.

And the Woolton-based professor estimated that mask wearing indoors is likely to remain for the whole of 2021 and social distancing to be part of our lives until the autumn, at least.

Professor John Ashton

Schools "shouldn't be rushed open," Prof Ashton said, four day working weeks could be introduced for working parents, and far better educational technological provision made for children currently home schooling.

The health academic also cautioned people to not expect any foreign holidays in 2021, and urged us to "explore our local environments" instead, when rules allow.

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Prof Ashton told the ECHO: "The background to this whole pandemic links back to government letting our public health system run down, over the last 10 years in particular.

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"They took their eye off the ball, particularly since the economic crash, and the status of local directors of public health in many places was downgraded and line managed by directors of adult social care.

"Many of them, until the pandemic got into its stride, didn't have direct access to the leader of the council or chief executive, they were very much second-rank officials.

"They had their budget slashed, couldn't access the media – public health directors were told by NHS England they couldn't talk to the media, unless they got clearance from communications in Public Health England, and even the annual health report from public health directors was no longer independent, and became a corporate document, signed off by politicians.

"A 200 year tradition of public health in England had been weakened.

"So, we should have been ready for this crisis, [coronavirus], but we weren't."

Prof Ashton, who still lives in Woolton Village, is damning about how Boris Johnson and his team were "incompetent" from the start, referencing the "wasted month of February", when "Johnson was preoccupied with his mistress and Brexit," the missed five Cobra meetings, when addressing the weaknesses in the testing systems and severe lack of PPE should have been the focus.

He said: "That meant we were running to catch up ever since….and all the other things in those six months until so called Independence Day in July when Johnson told everyone to go out, eat, drink and be merry.

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"And so the virus was let off the hook for the summer, and so it was ready to take off again in the autumn."

He name-checked well-publicised events in March, like the Cheltenham Festival, and Liverpool's match against Atletico Madrid at Anfield, which many strongly believe should not have gone ahead, and the Prime Minister's "nonsense" talk of herd immunity, spoken of in a now-infamous TV interview on This Morning.

Atletico Madrid fans in Liverpool ahead of Champions League game with Liverpool

Prof Ashton added: "We locked down too late, and opened up too early, there was a failure to be frank with the public, manipulated data, not telling us about care home deaths for two months, which doubled the number of deaths, then changing the definition of death from Covid….

"All this undermined trust, reinforced by Dominic Cummings, and the Prime Minister shaking hands with everybody at that hospital and getting infected himself, all of this "Do as I say, not as I do," which undermined the public trust.

"So whereas the public were very good in that first lockdown, now, traffic is not like it was at that time, with a lot more movement today.

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"And we've seen all the breaking of the rules, people assembling."

"Now, it's the repeat of the same mistakes, like Groundhog Day, locking down too late again, refusing to take advice about a circuit break for the autumn half term, making people believe Christmas could be normal and then doing another U-turn.

"And now, having invested so much in the vaccine and adopting a nationalistic approach, they're trying to be better than the Germans, like putting out towels on the seats by the pool, first thing in the morning.

"The government is getting worried on whether there are issues with the vaccine against the South African strain, so they've come in really heavy recently with fine and threats of prison sentences [for lockdown breaches].

"My own belief is that if they tackled this differently, and adopted a much more open approach with the public, and not tried to run everything from London, things would be far better.

"But instead of giving resource to local public health teams, to build up track and trace through local directors, they threw millions at these private companies.

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"With better decisions in place, we would have been in a better position to take the public with us along on this journey in which they've had to accept limitations on freedom of movement.

"We could have saved tens of thousands of deaths, as it is, we are amongst the very worst in the world in terms of deaths per 100,000 of population.

"We could have been talking of a figure of half as many if we got a grip on it.

"If you compare how we did in the influenza pandemic, 100 years ago, the UK accounted for less than 1 per cent of the world deaths, 100 years ago, when virology was in its infancy.

"But today, it's approaching five per cent when we boast about how good our science is and our virology.

"The vaccines are a fantastic gift for us, but this not a magic wand and we can't take our eyes off the ball.

"It needs local public health teams at the forefront, who know their communities, who are trusted by local people as they are familiar with them.

"Local health teams have been doing it for the best part of 200 years, if we'd adopted that approach, we'd be in a better position than we are today."

Professor Ashton's now-published book – Blinded by Corona – was long-listed for the Orwell Prize, described by commentators as how "Britain's response was hobbled by a perfect storm created by a patient-orientated response rather than one that was society-facing."

It concludes: "A year was lost, and it will likely take another half year before Britain is on top of the problem."

Professor John Ashton

Prof Ashton describes the UK as a "Covid-failed state," on a par with "South Africa, Brazil, Peru and Portugal, Spain, France and Italy."

He added "The government isn't keen on making international comparisons, except for vaccination coverage and then they ARE very keen to make international comparisons.

"So that's another manifestation of the way they've tried to approach this as a political propaganda exercise, rather than a factually based conversation.

"At each stage it's been possible to do better, the government has hardly put a foot right, it's always been slow and not decisive enough.

"The fact we produced our own variant, the Kent one, puts us in the same category as South Africa and Brazil, an indication of how high a level of circulation the virus is.

"And when the virus is circulating at very high levels, it has more chance to mutate, that's why we have a real problem now.

"We need to drive the level of circulating virus down, and that's where the lockdown comes in, and continuing with testing and tracing, to deal with outbreaks of the new variant, as they occur."

Prof Ashton was one of the loudest voices last spring when the controversy over Liverpool's Champions League fixture against Atletico Madrid started to make headlines for the wrong reasons.

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He was incredulous that 3,000 Atletico Madrid fans had been allowed to travel from the Spanish capital – which was experiencing an acute outbreak of coronavirus – to Liverpool, despite not being allowed to attend matches at their own home ground.

He appeared on BBC's Question Time programme on March 12, and clashed with some guests, including presenter Fiona Bruce, leading to some "ranty professor" headlines in the media and one which concluded: "Tory MP in brutal put down of lefty health expert."

Now, however, in manypeople's eyes, Mr Ashton has been proved largely right.

The lengthy lockdowns, spiralling death toll, the universally-acknowledged failures of the test and trace and mixed messages from Westminster, have all come in for fierce and sustained criticism.

Prof Ashton said: "The social isolation has not been robust enough as a lot of people cant' afford to self-isolate, the measures to support people in self-isolation on low incomes hasn't been good enough.

"We probably need to maintain lockdown to Easter time, and shouldn't be in hurry to go back to school.

"We should be making sure children learning remotely are getting all the support they need, with laptops and iPads – they should be getting the same quality education as private schools can offer, or as essential workers' children.

"We should be extending the school year to December to allow children to catch up, and we need some quite radical approaches to this.

"We should be rotating our kids at school so they have a day or two in school, we should have moved to a four day week for adults, so a parent can have a good chance of being at home when their kids are at home.

Boris Johnson during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons

"We not had any of that strategic, blue sky thinking, we haven't been imaginative in keeping this show on the road while keeping control on the virus.

"The countries that have dealt with the virus most effectively have protected their economies the best.

"Their economies have bounced back and yet we are talking of a double dip recession in this country."

Prof Ashton predicts "we'll never be free of Covid," and says annual vaccinations, like for the flu, will become a way of life in the future.

And he advised people to forget about the prospect of foreign holidays in 2021, and even suggested "exploring your local areas," for holidays, later this year.

The south Liverpool man said: "People need to be thinking of making the most of their own local situation, there's lots to do in Liverpool.

"When I was a child, we didn't have any money, our summer days were about going to New Brighton, or West Kirkby or Hoylake on the train, with buckets and spades, orange juice and sandwiches."

Professor Ashton, currently working part-time as a lead consultant in testing and tracing in North Wales, and also helping to administer vaccines on two days of the week in Liverpool, finished by saying: "The government needs to rebuild trust with the public – they've not been willing to admit they got things wrong.

"It's been incompetent and it's been arrogant.

"They've not done the right thing at the right time and not taken public with them, very willing to blame other people for what's gone wrong.

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"It's not been an issue of a particular political party, it's an issue of competence."

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly defended his government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, arguing that the government has done all it can to protect and support people throughout the crisis.

Blinded by Corona: How the Pandemic is Ruining Our Health and Wealth, by Professor John Ashton, is available on hardback for £30 and on paperback for £12.99.

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