A professor was ‘mocked’ for his views on the UK’s approach to tackling coronavirus a month ago – but his beliefs may have been right.
Professor John Ashton, appearing on BBC’s Question Time on Thursday March 12, was heavily critical of the government’s ‘slow’ response to the growing crisis.
The former regional public health director from Liverpool warned that the lack of testing and preparation was ‘complacent’ and called for social distancing measures to be brought in rapidly.
He was incredulous that the night before the show, 3,000 Atletico Madrid fans had been allowed to travel from the Spanish capital – which was experiencing an acute outbreak of coronavirus – to Liverpool, despite not being allowed to attend matches at their own home ground.
Professor Ashton interrupted minister Steve Barclay to proclaim that ‘the politicians are believing their own rhetoric and they are wrong,’ The Liverpool Echo reports.
A couple of newspaper headlines the day after his TV appearance read ‘Fiona Bruce shuts down ranty professor’ and ‘Tory MP in brutal put down of lefty health expert’.
But things changed rapidly in the UK in the month since that Question Time programme aired.
The country is now in a full state of lockdown, the death toll has soared and the Prime Minister had to be treated in an intensive care unit after contracting the virus.
The government is under serious pressure for how it has handled this crisis.
Professor Ashton, 72, has this week spoken to the Liverpool Echo about his earlier comments.
“One of the things that has stuck with me throughout my life, I once read Bertrand Russell said he realised early in life about being the only person who believed something – I’ve always hung onto that.
“If you trust your own judgement, that’s what counts.
“Fiona Bruce and others were trying to make out that I was being political but I think they were the ones trying to be political in trying to write me off.
“I am a medic and a director of public health and I don’t make statements that I can’t justify on the evidence.”
He believes all the government’s problems stem from a failure to take the situation seriously at an early stage.
He said: “The first mistake was not convening Cobra at the beginning of February when it looked like there was something serious going on and everything else follows on from that, like not getting a grip of our testing capacity and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
“Not getting a grip in the early days all flowed from the Prime Minister not taking it seriously enough and the advice he was getting depending on a narrow group of chums, the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientist.”
There are still major questions about whether the UK government was seriously considering a so-called ‘herd immunity’ approach to dealing with the epidemic in this country.
This is the idea that the virus is essentially allowed to spread through and infect a large proportion of the UK’s 66m population, in order for society to build up an immunity to it.
Mr Johnson infamously said in an interview on This Morning, that as a nation we could “perhaps take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population, without taking as many draconian measures.”
This apparent strategy didn’t last long and was dropped as soon as Imperial College researchers predicted it could have led to as many as 250,000 deaths in the country.
Those findings led to a sudden u-turn from government on social distancing on March 16 – although a full lockdown still wasn’t introduced until a week later.
Professor Ashton believes the herd immunity theory was something the government had effectively forced itself into because of its failures to prepare – and crucially begin mass testing – from an early stage.
He said: “That idea only lasted a couple of days because obviously everyone reacted so strongly against it and they saw the numbers they would have been looking at.
“The Imperial model was imperfect because we didn’t have good testing data, but nevertheless it did start showing the large number of deaths if they just let things run, so that was where the rapid backtracking came from.”
He said: “Yes they did do the lockdown too late.”
“And the testing is important in terms of ending the lockdown as well, if you know what is going on then you may be able to ease up a bit in areas where there isn’t a lot of it about, but we still don’t have that information.”
“In terms of making it stick, if people see that there could be light at the end of the tunnel if they all adhere to the guidance then they are more likely to stick to it.
“This is all part of that bigger story about the fact that the government was patronising and paternalistic from the outset and didn’t share what data they actually did have. If you treat people like kids, don’t be surprised if they act like delinquents.”