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Is the government behind the curve in tackling the coronavirus outbreak?

Ministers insist that they have acted in accordance with scientific advice at all times, but the final reckoning might be less flattering, writes Andrew Grice

he mantra of Boris Johnson and his ministers is: “We have taken the right measures at the right time.” When asked, the government’s medical and scientific advisers agree (but they have to).

But some outside experts and UK politicians believe the government has been off the pace, and behind the international curve, in its response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet medical journal, said recently that he believes valuable time was lost in February when the government should have moved more quickly to ensure more testing, continued contact tracing of those who tested positive for the virus and securing enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers.

Jeremy Hunt, former health secretary, said yesterday that normal life is much closer to returning in countries such as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, which learnt how to handle a pandemic in the Sars outbreak and took the World Health Organisation’s advice to “test, test ,test”.

The number of tests in the UK increased from 5,000 to 10,000 a day by the weekend, just meeting the deadline set by Matt Hancock, the health secretary. Although limited testing for health workers is being now being rolled out, ministers are coy about saying when health and social care staff will be routinely tested so they can return to work more quickly after a period in isolation.

Other deadlines have been missed. Hancock promised social care workers would have PPE by the end of the last week, but many remain without it. Although supplies now appear to be reaching hospitals, long-awaited guidelines on the use of PPE, which would reassure frontline staff, are still in the pipeline.

The number of ventilators has risen to 8,000, with another 8,000 on order from abroad, and more will be manufactured in the UK. But again ministers will not say when their target of 30,000 will be hit. “As soon as possible” is their answer to many questions.

There are reports that the government spurned offers by some UK companies to secure more ventilators. It missed the chance to join an EU procurement initiative when an email was missed in London. Ministers insist the UK did not end up with a smaller number of ventilators as a result.

The other persistent criticism is that Johnson’s libertarian instincts delayed the lockdown, losing valuable time in limiting the transmission of the virus. With some restrictions likely to last until June if not longer, critics will question the government’s suggestion that the delay of about two weeks was partly due to fears the public would not tolerate curbs for a long period.

In public, ministers are confident the inevitable inquest into their handling of the crisis will show they acted “in line with the scientific advice” at all times. In private, there are fears that the reckoning may be less flattering.

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