'They're treating us like children': Health expert's warning over Boris Johnson's coronavirus response

A notice instructs people with symptoms of the covid-19 coronavirus not to enter St Mary's Hospital in London, England, on March 11, 2020. The hospital houses a dedicated 'coronavirus pod' isolation unit for symptomatic patients. In the UK, 460 people have now been confirmed to have the virus. Six patients with coronavirus have so far died in hospitals around the country. The World Health Organisation (WHO) meanwhile today officially designated the global spread of the illness as a pandemic. (Photo by David Cliff/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A health expert has urged the government to "get a grip" on coronavirus and stop "treating the public like children" (NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Boris Johnson’s government has been urged by a top health expert to “get a grip and stop treating the public as children” over coronavirus.

Professor John Ashton, former former regional director of public health for the north-west of England, accused the government of having a “complacent attitude” and wasting time when it should have been engaging with the public.

His comments, made on BBC’s Newsnight on Wednesday night, came as Boris Johnson was expected to sign off moving the UK into the delay phase for battling coronavirus during an emergency Government meeting on Thursday.

On Wednesday, Denmark became the second European country to impose a lockdown in a bid to stop the spread of the disease, while Donald Trump announced travel restrictions from 26 European countries to the US to combat the spread.

The moves come as the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic.

A pragmatic approach

Speaking on Newsnight, Prof Ashton said he was “tearing his hair out” over the way the spread of Covid-19 was being dealt with by the government.

His comments echoed those of Richard Horton, chief editor of the Lancet medical journal, who accused the government of “playing roulette with the public”.

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Prof Ashton said: “The government needs to get a grip and stop treating the public as children which is what it’s been doing.

“And we need a pragmatic approach - we don’t need this academic approach which we’ve been getting from London.”

He compared the way the spread of the virus was being address to an approach adopted by a Bahraini team, who he said had set up a “war room” five weeks ago and were doing extensive testing.

He added: “I want to know why we’re not testing those people coming back from Italy and who are now amongst us. We’ve got a recipe for community spread here.”

Asked by Emily Maitlis for his thoughts on whether public events like football matches or the Cheltenham Festival should be cancelled, Prof Ashton said: “You’ve got Madrid where they’re playing games behind closed doors and you’ve got 3,000 supporters in town staying overnight in Liverpool drinking in the bars and a proportion of those will be corona positive.

“We will now have people being infected tonight in Liverpool because of that.”

Prof Ashton said a proportion of fans who travelled to watch Atletico Madrid take on Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League would have been coronavirus positive. (Picture: PA)
Prof Ashton said a proportion of fans who travelled to watch Atletico Madrid take on Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League would have been coronavirus positive (PA)

He said if the virus spreads the way it looks likely to, there would not be enough hospital beds and people would have to be nursed at home.

“We should have got a grip on this a month ago,” said Prof Ashton.

He added: “The local and regional public health system is now very weak. They’ve had cuts in budgets of 30% since public health has been put into the town hall.

“They’ve been ignored and neglected – there’s no mention of local authorities in the Budget. The staffing has been dramatically reduced since 2013.

“It’s going to be a community issue. It’s going to be a local and regional issue and not all run from London by people behind closed doors thinking they can pull levers and happen.”

What is the ‘delay phase’ people are talking about?

The delay phase is aimed to slow the rate of spread of coronavirus so the NHS can clear its annual winter pressure in order to cope with the virus.

It would also provide a buffer to allow a possible vaccine to be developed, although this would not come into use for at least another year.

Coronavirus cases in England. See story HEALTH Coronavirus. Infographic PA Graphics
Coronavirus cases in England. See story HEALTH Coronavirus. Infographic PA Graphics

The delay phase is a mixture of the same advice given out, such as encouraging the washing of hands regularly, while also introducing ‘social restrictions’ like urging employees to work from home where possible and possibly shutting down schools and cancelling events where masses of people will gather.

The government’s planning document says: “The benefits are that if the peak of the outbreak can be delayed until the warmer months, we can reduce significantly the risk of overlapping with seasonal flu and other challenges, societal or medical, that the colder months bring.

“The delay phase also buys time for the testing of drugs and initial development of vaccines and/or improved therapies or tests to help reduce the impact of the disease.”