Scientists are to blame if the government blundered in its response to the coronavirus pandemic, a cabinet minister says.
Thérèse Coffey responded to growing criticism of strategy over testing and the lockdown by acknowledging “wrong” decisions might have been made – but arguing ministers had only followed the experts.
“If the science was wrong, advice at the time was wrong, I'm not surprised if people will then think we then made a wrong decision,” the work and pensions secretary said.
The comment came as infighting broke out over the “pivotal” decision to halt community testing in March, with Public Health England (PHE) and the Department for Health and Social Care blaming each other.
Ms Coffey faced questions after the incoming president of the Royal Society criticised ministers for sending out the message that “we are simply doing what scientists tell us”.
Sir Adrian Smith said any backlash over the handling of the coronavirus outbreak would not be aimed at the scientists, because they are only the advisers.
“The danger is if the politicians keep saying, ‘We’re simply doing what the scientists tell us’. That could be awkward. Politicians ultimately must make the decisions,” he told The Times.
“There will be a post mortem on this. But I think the use of science and the re-establishment of experts is something that won’t go away. And I think it won’t be the backlash that, you know, the scientists, got it wrong.”
But Ms Coffey stuck to the defence on Sky TV, saying the science had been followed “every step of the way”, adding: “I think that is what the British public would accept.”
She said: “You can only make judgments and decisions based on the information and advice that you have at the time.”
Throughout the crisis, the chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, and Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, have appeared alongside ministers and appeared to back their decisions.
However, Boris Johnson has been criticised for refusing to release advice from the Sage committee – and that it was dominated by behavioural scientists, rather than public health experts.
Allegations of key mistakes focus on abandoned policy of herd immunity – which delayed the lockdown until later than in other countries – and on the 12 March decision to stop community testing.
Ministers have blamed “capacity restraints”, but a British former director of the World Health Organisation revealed that 44 virology laboratories had been left standing idle.
Meanwhile, elderly hospital patients were released into care homes without being tested, sparking the huge death toll in those homes, it is alleged.
Meanwhile, infighting broke out when PHE said it was “not responsible” for the UK's testing strategy – after criticism of the 12 March decision – which “has been led by the Department of Health and Social Care”.
Duncan Selbie, its chief executive Duncan Selbie rejected allegations it prevented tests in private labs, insisting “any testing facility with the right technology” could conduct them after security restrictions were lowered on 3 March.
“PHE did not constrain or seek to control any laboratory either public, university or commercial from conducting testing,” he added.
Boris Johnson's spokesman distanced him from Ms Coffey's comments, saying: “Scientists provide advice to the government, ministers ultimately decide. That’s how government works”.