Scientists are partly to blame for the UK’s coronavirus crisis after failing to “pick up the signals from China” in the early days of the pandemic, a health expert has said.
Richard Horton, who edits medical journal The Lancet, said “the whole story was laid out” at the end of January and that scientists as well as politicians needed to ask themselves why the government “wasted six to eight weeks” before taking it seriously.
Asked by Sky News’ Kay Burley whether politicians acted in the right way, he replied: “No, they did not – the whole story of the past eight months has been laid out in a series of papers that we published at the end of January, and the story of the severity of the disease.
“The fact that there's no vaccine, the need for PPE, the need for wide-scale testing – all of the issues that we've been debating were laid out then, and it wasn't until March that the government took this seriously.”
“We wasted six to eight weeks when we could have been preparing for what hit us in March through to the present, and that was an astonishing political failure.
“I'm afraid to say that some of the responsibility is shared by not just the politicians but also the scientists, and as we look back at the events over the last eight months, we need to ask ourselves why was it that the multiplicity of government committees and medical officers and scientific advisers that we have across all four countries of the UK didn't pick up the signals from China in the early days when the whole story was laid out for them then.
“There was not just a political failure – there was also a failure of the policy advice being given to them.”
"That was an astonishing political failure"— SkyNews (@SkyNews) September 7, 2020
Lancet editor-in-chief, Richard Horton says politicians "wasted 6 to 8 weeks" at the beginning of the pandemic when they "could have been preparing for what hit us in March through to the present."#KayBurley https://t.co/K0TB6o4Uwn pic.twitter.com/64ZaRmijt6
Horton is a prominent critic of the government’s coronavirus response.
He told MPs on the Commons science select committee in March that Britain had “wasted the month of February” in the fight against the virus.
At the end of January the Lancet had published three papers from Chinese researchers that warned the NHS would be overwhelmed once the virus reached the UK.
Horton said the authors of the papers were “advocating the use of personal protective equipment” for healthcare workers, as well as supporting increased testing and isolation for positive cases.
He said the failure to prepare for this would result in lives being lost.
In May he urged the government not to end lockdown too early, saying it should continue until June.
Horton is among many scientists who have voiced their frustration over the UK government’s claim that it is “being led by the science”.
Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, told The Guardian in April: “As a scientist, I hope I never again hear the phrase ‘based on the best science and evidence’ spoken by a politician. This phrase has become basically meaningless and used to explain anything and everything.”’
In June, Sir David King, a former chief scientific adviser to prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, set up his own “shadow” group of experts as an alternative to the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).
He said his panel, which streams its meetings on YouTube, was necessary because he feared experts were deferring to ministers.
Sir David had also previously criticised the government for delaying its lockdown.
Coronavirus: what happened today