Coronavirus: Jenny Harries criticised for 'patronising' remark about 'exemplar preparedness'

Dr Jenny Harries is facing criticism after praising the UK's coronavirus preparation as "exemplar" and suggesting conversation could be "more adult" when discussing PPE supplies.

Speaking at the daily government press conference on Sunday, the deputy chief medical officer (CMO) said the existence of a "pandemic stockpile" was a "very high quality mark" of preparation.

The UK, she said: "Has been an international exemplar in preparedness. So the fact that there is a pandemic stockpile is considered a very high quality mark of a prepared country in international terms."

Turning to recent concerns about the widely reported lack of personal protective equipment for frontline staff, she suggested that a "more adult" conversation could be had about the supply.

She also defended the overall plan to tackle the illness, saying the containment phase was "very successful".

But her comments on Sunday afternoon, which comes as the UK's hospital death toll to COVID-19 topped 16,000, were quick to draw criticism from figures working in health and social care, who said it had been "patronising".

Professor Anthony Costello, from University College London's Institute for Global Health, said he "cannot believe" the comments he had heard, highlighting that Ms Harries "still believed that the testing policy in the UK has been correct".

He added: "And she doesn't understand links between tests and COVID death rates. Is this CMO policy? If so, they should resign."

Meanwhile, Birmingham-based GP Rizwanul Haq referred to the comments as a "ridiculous and patronising statement", adding: "I don't see her volunteering on being on the frontline without proper PPE."

Care worker Joy Parry, from Norfolk, said she found the same remark "snide" and "patronising in the extreme."

She said: "Come and do a shift alongside me, re-using single use PPE and show me how it's done."

Responding generally to the press conference, Devi Sridhar, a professor and chair of Global Public Health at Edinburgh University, said "some humility" when looking at how the UK could have performed better "would be great to see".

She added: "What I'd love to hear: 'We made a mistake and didn't prepare. We underestimated this virus and treated it like a flu that would run through the population.

"We have not protected our front-line staff, and our most precious resource. But we will try now to listen and improve our response."

The focus on PPE supply has been elevated in recent days after it was revealed some hospitals were down to their last 24 hours-worth of protective gowns, and a shipment due in from Turkey on Sunday had been delayed.

It comes after an investigation by the Sunday Times said Prime Minister Boris Johnson had not attended the first five emergency COBRA meetings ahead of the outbreak in the UK, and further claimed the government had missed a number of opportunities to lessen the impact.

In response, a government spokesman said the article contained "a series of falsehoods and errors and actively misrepresents the enormous amount of work which was going on in government at the earliest stages of the coronavirus outbreak".

Commenting on the concerns about PPE, Ms Harries said conversations were "quite rightly" focused on gowns and that she "was very aware" of considerations for goggles and masks.

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But, she assured that "although there may be elements of distribution problems across the UK - at different times and in different places - this is a huge pull on services which we have never seen before.

"We have managed actually - despite signalling many potential shortfalls - to continue to supply going forward."

The management of current supplies had also been using a "risk mitigation method," she said, which means looking to patients and workers at highest risk across the country.

"We just need to think carefully through what has been achieved and the challenges - which are acknowledged - ahead," she said.

Downing Street and the Department of Health were both approached for comment.