Ministers shifting blame to Public Health England for Covid-19 errors, say experts

“Experts have accused ministers of shifting the blame for their own mistakes during the coronavirus crisis on to Public Health England, amid speculation that the agency may be scrapped.”

The idea that Ministers are personally accountable for everything that happens on their watch is deeply ingrained. Peter Carrington famously resigned in 1982 as Foreign Secretary  taking full responsibility for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s failure to foresee the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands. Since then Ministers have often argued that they cannot be held accountable for “operational” as opposed to “policy” failures.

Although Owl has been unimpressed by the performance of Public Health England it must be remembered that it is the product of the Lansley 2012 Health and Social Care Act and subsequent government budget cuts.

Denis Campbell www.theguardian.com 

Experts have accused ministers of shifting the blame for their own mistakes during the coronavirus crisis on to Public Health England, amid speculation that the agency may be scrapped.

Downing Street on Wednesday failed to guarantee that PHE will survive in its present form as an executive agency of the Department of Health and Social Care when the government reviews its response to Covid-19.

It also did not rebut a report that Boris Johnson was referring to PHE when he said in a speech on Tuesday that “parts of government that seemed to respond so sluggishly” to the pandemic.

Without apportioning blame, the prime minister had said “it seemed like that recurring bad dream when you are telling your feet to run and your feet won’t move”.

His remarks came two days after Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, announced he would be standing down after weeks of anonymous briefing against him.

Prof Gabriel Scally, an ex-regional director of public health for the south-west of England, said it appeared ministers were trying to deflect blame onto others for the failures in testing and protective equipment that have contributed to the UK’s high death rate.

“It was only a matter of time, the hunt for someone to blame. It ill befits Boris Johnson or any Tory to go about criticising PHE. This is the government seeking to identify the fall guy for a gross and widespread failure of government. It’s ministers blaming others for their own failings”, said Scally, who is a professor of public health at Bristol university.

Prof John Ashton, a former director of public health in the north-west, said: “The government is trying to pass the buck for its own failures in to PHE. But there’s been a political failure, a leadership failure and also a technical failure by PHE.

“It’s made a series of serious mistakes during the crisis in all the key areas that it’s responsible for: testing, tracing, personal protective equipment and the gathering and sharing of intelligence. It’s been poor on those counts”.

PHE has come under intense scrutiny for its role in tackling the virus and has attracted intermittent criticism in recent weeks from sources in and around the government about its performance.

A senior PHE official said this seemed to be “part of an undermining strategy by some people in government”, especially those in Downing Street.

“Testing strategy? The Department of Health and Social Care led on that. We run laboratories and increased our testing to 25,000 tests a day, which is the most we can do. Contact tracing? We did that but only have 290 people for the whole of England who can do that, so as soon as it became obvious that community transmission was occurring, we shifted out efforts to that”, the official said.

Ministers are reportedly accusing PHE of abandoning the tracing of the recent contacts of people who tested positive for the virus on 12 March, which is now regarded as a key early blunder during the crisis.

However, James Brokenshire, the Home Office minister, has previously admitted that the decision was prompted by the “capacity restraints” of England’s limited system of testing swab samples rather than a strategic change of direction by PHE.

Christina Marriott, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, said: “We should try to avoid what could be a destructive blame game, with rash calls for overhaul, and an undermining of the nation’s ability to deliver an effective Covid-19 response at this vital moment. What is needed now is an honest and swift ‘lessons learnt’ review, so that the nation can respond as well as possible to any second wave.”

Asked whether PHE was under threat, the prime minister’s spokesman praised its role in the coronavirus crisis, but also stressed the need to ensure that institutions were “fit to cope” with future emergencies.

“Public Health England are playing a key role in our response, working on important issues such as detection, surveillance, contact-tracing and testing,” he said. “They have been working hard to help protect the country and to provide insight in our efforts to beat the virus.”

The spokesman added: “We’ve made changes to structures already, for instance we have set up, from scratch, NHS test and trace, and the joint biosecurity centre. Any future changes that we might make would be aimed at further strengthening our public health capability.”