Britain's health secretary Matt Hancock speaks at 10 Downing Street in London, the UK, May 15 2020. Picture: ANDREW PARSONS/HO/REUTERS
Britain's health secretary Matt Hancock speaks at 10 Downing Street in London, the UK, May 15 2020. Picture: ANDREW PARSONS/HO/REUTERS

London — Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government became embroiled in an ugly row over the UK’s coronavirus response, after a minister suggested mistakes were down to the “wrong” advice from scientific advisers.

“You can only make judgments and decisions based on the information and advice that you have at the time,” work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey told Sky News on Tuesday, when asked if the government accepts the crisis has been mishandled. “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.”

Coffey was speaking after data showed the UK became the first country in Europe to record more than 40,000 deaths from Covid-19. Though the death rate in the wider community is dropping rapidly, there’s still a crisis in care homes that has worsened tension across the government. Ministers say they have been guided throughout by “the science”, leading to accusations they’re seeking to divert blame for any missteps.

“Scientists advise, ministers take decisions — that’s how government works,” Johnson’s spokesperson, James Slack, told reporters when asked about Coffey’s comments, in an apparent attempt to diffuse the row.

Much of the criticism of Johnson’s government has focused on the early days of the outbreak, including a decision in March to halt widespread testing for Covid-19 in the community and waiting until March 23 to impose a nationwide lockdown. The roll-out of a track-and-trace programme, widely regarded as essential to ensuring restrictions can be eased without triggering a wave of infections, is also yet to materialise.

Yet it’s the outbreak in care homes that is arguably the most sensitive for ministers. Last week, Johnson was challenged by opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer over initial government advice that it was “very unlikely” coronavirus would spread in the facilities, which house elderly and vulnerable people.

Instead — along with hospitals — they became the front-line of the pandemic. According to the latest data, 42% of all deaths involving Covid-19 in England and Wales took place in care homes in the week ending May 8.

Martin Green, CEO of Care England, criticised the government’s decision to discharge patients — some with Covid-19 symptoms — from hospitals to the homes.

“We had a policy of emptying hospitals and filling care homes,” he told the House of Commons health committee. “We should have been focusing on care homes from the start of this pandemic. What we saw at the start was a focus on the NHS, and that meant that care homes often had their medical support from the NHS withdrawn.”

In parliament, health secretary Matt Hancock defended the government’s performance, noting that 62% of care homes had had no reported coronavirus cases and the number of deaths was now falling. “We have made social care a priority from the start,” he told MPs.

But while the death rate is falling in the UK, the government still faces significant hurdles to opening up the economy and schools. Disagreements between scientists, officials and ministers are likely to worsen tension further.

Responding to a question on opening schools, John Edmunds, a specialist in infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who advises the government, echoed the recent trend of scientists pushing back on the government’s “following the science” defence.

“Clearly the decision to open primary schools or not is a political one, it’s not a scientific one,” he told the House of Lords science committee on Tuesday.