In Brief

Leading adviser accuses Boris Johnson of ‘failing to take coronavirus threat seriously’

Allegation comes as prime minister takes ‘direct control’ of Covid-19 response

Boris Johnson and senior ministers failed to take the threat posed by coronavirus seriously during the crucial weeks after the outbreak first reached the UK, a senior government scientific adviser has claimed.

The allegation comes after The Telegraph revealed yesterday that Johnson is taking back “direct control” of the government’s response to the pandemic in a “shake-up” at Downing Street.

Professor Graham Medley, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), says that he and colleagues became concerned back in February that their warnings about the great threat posed by Covid-19 were being disregarded, reports The Times.

“We already knew that this virus was going to cause an awful lot of death and disability and would require an awful lot of NHS resources,” Professor Medley, who also chairs the SPI-M pandemic modelling committee, tells Channel 4’s Dispatches team in a documentary being broadcast tonight. 

“So it was with some dismay that we were watching senior politicians behaving in a way that suggested that this was not something that was too serious.”

Sage told the government on 26 February that restricting activities outside UK households could reduce overall infections by 50% to 60%. Yet large-scale events were still taking place a month later, before the UK finally entered lockdown on 23 March.

The government’s scientific advisers had also called in early March for a public warning against “greetings such as shaking hands and hugging”. But that same day the prime minister told a press conference that he had shaken hands with coronavirus patients during a hospital visit. 

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The new documentary also reveals that Johnson told his Italian counterpart, Giuseppe Conte, that he was aiming for “herd immunity” to overcome coronavirus, despite the government “denying that was ever the policy”, The Independent reports.

Conte’s health minister, Pierpaolo Sileri, told Dispatches about a conversation with his boss in which the Italian PM allegedly said that “he’d spoken with Boris Johnson and that they’d also talked about the situation in Italy”.

“I remember he said, ‘He told me that he wants herd immunity’,” Sileri claims.

Responding to the allegations, a Downing Street spokesperson said that concerned members of the public should read the Sage papers rather than accept the conclusions of a “rushed documentary”.

Emphasising that herd immunity has never been government policy, the spokesperson added that No. 10’s response has “ensured that the NHS has capacity for everyone who needs it and that it can provide the best possible care for people who become ill”.

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