Travel health experts ‘a bit Wizard of Oz,’ says leading Tory MP

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Danger zone? Provence in France, which was placed on the ‘amber plus’ lift during the summer peak (iStock)
Danger zone? Provence in France, which was placed on the ‘amber plus’ lift during the summer peak (iStock)

A leading Tory MP has described the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) as “a bit Wizard of Oz” after it failed to respond to his questions on the travel “red list”.

Huw Merriman, chair of the Transport Select Committee, was questioning the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, on the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Merriman, Conservative MP for Bexhill and Battle, expressed frustration at the lack of information provided to MPs by the JBC – the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) body that briefs ministers on travel risks.

He told Mr Shapps: “I wrote to the JBC on 3 August asking for a response by 17 August to better inform us as to why France had moved to ‘amber plus’ when Spain hadn’t, when the beta rates seemed to be greater.”

The letter was addressed to Johanna Hutchinson, director of data and data science at the JBC. Mr Merriman asked for “the data and rationale which informed, in part or in whole, the advice recommending the introduction of the French amber restrictions” – as well as the corresponding information for Spain and Bulgaria.

At the time of the decision, Spain had a proportion of new Beta infections 17 times higher than France, and was on the regular amber list; Bulgaria had twice as many Beta cases and was on the green list.

“No response at all,” Mr Merriman, reported five weeks after his deadline expired. “We can’t find any detail in terms of the methodology for the advice on the red list. It seems to be suppressed.

“We can’t find any information. They’re not writing back to us. They just seem to be a bit ‘Wizard of Oz’ about it.”

Mr Shapps said: “They don’t come under my remit. They’re a Department of Health body. But I will very happily, on behalf of the committee, write to them and say that, in my view at least, they certainly should share that information with a committee of Parliament, for certain.”

The Independent has asked the DHSC for a response.

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