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Tory MP David Davis accuses ‘over-controlling’ Public Health England of not being fit for purpose

Prominent Tory MP David Davis today accused Public Health England of being ‘over-controlling’ amid mounting pressure on Number 10 to scrap the agency over its handling of the Covid-19 crisis.

In a scathing attack on the government-run body, Mr Davis claimed it had got ‘every single task’ wrong since the coronavirus outbreak began to spiral out of control.

PHE was responsible for the initially chaotic coronavirus testing regime as well as the decision made early in the crisis to abandon widespread tracking of the virus.

The move was seen by many scientists as one of the central mistakes in Britain’s handling of the pandemic. The UK has the highest number of coronavirus deaths in Europe.

Mr Davis told MailOnline: ‘They made a complete mess of the testing arrangements; they were over-centralised, over-controlling and massively reduced our ability to test.’

He warned the decision – criticised heavily by top scientists at the time – then ‘handicapped’ later decisions and was ‘precisely the wrong thing to do’.

It comes after it was reported last night that the future of Public Health England was in doubt after Boris Johnson admitted parts of the government’s Covid-19 response had been ‘sluggish’.

And yesterday it was revealed that 1,000 grieving families who’ve lost loved ones to coronavirus are preparing legal action against the government over claims they would not have died had ministers locked down the country sooner.  

In a scathing attack on the government-run body, Tory MP David Davis claimed PHE had got 'every single task' wrong since the coronavirus outbreak began to spiral out of control

In a scathing attack on the government-run body, Tory MP David Davis claimed PHE had got ‘every single task’ wrong since the coronavirus outbreak began to spiral out of control

Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith added that he would ‘abolish PHE tomorrow’ because it has made decisions which ‘puzzled people’.

When asked if he agreed with Sir Iain’s claim he would scrap the agency in a heartbeat, Mr Davis told MailOnline: ‘We’ve probably got other things to do.

‘But before the winter crisis, the government has to reorganise this, whether that’s abolition or taking some of the powers away from them and giving them to someone else.’

Mr Davis, MP for Haltemprice and Howden in Yorkshire, added: ‘We can’t manage the next winter [the ways things are run now].’

MailOnline has approached Public Health England for comment. 

The Prime Minister did not name PHE in his speech – but sources told The Daily Telegraph that they believed he was referring to the beleaguered agency.

It comes after it was reported last night that the future of Public Health England was in doubt after Boris Johnson admitted parts of the government's Covid-19 response had been 'sluggish'

It comes after it was reported last night that the future of Public Health England was in doubt after Boris Johnson admitted parts of the government's Covid-19 response had been 'sluggish'

It comes after it was reported last night that the future of Public Health England was in doubt after Boris Johnson admitted parts of the government’s Covid-19 response had been ‘sluggish’

PHE was responsible for the initially chaotic coronavirus testing regime as well as the decision made early in the crisis to abandon widespread tracking of the virus. Pictured, a member of the military working at a drive-through testing centre passes swabs to a car

PHE was responsible for the initially chaotic coronavirus testing regime as well as the decision made early in the crisis to abandon widespread tracking of the virus. Pictured, a member of the military working at a drive-through testing centre passes swabs to a car

PHE was responsible for the initially chaotic coronavirus testing regime as well as the decision made early in the crisis to abandon widespread tracking of the virus. Pictured, a member of the military working at a drive-through testing centre passes swabs to a car

Mr Jonson, who said the failures in dealing with the pandemic had made it feel like being in a ‘recurring bad dream’, had earlier criticised the body’s response in MP meetings.

He hinted that PHE’s existence might be under threat when he told the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs in May that he was planning a review of ‘a number of institutions’ after the pandemic is over.

WHAT HAS PUBLIC HEALTH ENGLAND DONE WRONG? 

Public Health England has come under fire for the way it has handled the UK’s coronavirus testing system, for which it was responsible at the start of the Covid-19 crisis.

Its directors have tried to divert blame, explaining that major decisions are taken by Government ministers in the Department of Health, but the body has been accused of being controlling. 

These are some of the mis-steps for which PHE has been blamed:

Test and trace stopped on March 12

On March 12 the Government announced it would no longer test everybody who was thought to have coronavirus, and it would stop tracking the contacts of cases to try and stop the spread of the disease.

As a result, Britain effectively stopped tracking the virus and it was allowed to spiral out of control. 

It didn’t have the capacity to test the number of people who were catching the virus, officials have since admitted. 

Conservative MP David Davis today said that was ‘precisely the wrong thing to do’.

Professor Yvonne Doyle, PHE’s medical director, told MPs in May: ‘It was a decision that was come to because of the sheer scale of cases in the UK’.

Insufficient contact tracing capacity

Papers published by Government scientists on SAGE revealed that PHE only had enough contact tracing capacity to last two weeks in the event of a virus outbreak. 

PHE experts themselves said in February that capacity should be increased immediately but admitted it could only be expanded about 10-fold, to contact 8,000 people per day, which still wouldn’t be enough. 

The paper warned: ‘Where cases of higher generational numbers become predominant CCI is expected to be of limited benefit outside of certain special cases and should be discontinued.’

Pledged antibody tests in March

PHE’s Professor Sharon Peacock said on March 25 that the UK was on course to have antibody tests available to the public that month.

She confirmed the Government had bought 3.5million of the tests and was evaluating their quality.

They could be available to the public ‘within days’, she said at a Downing Street briefing.

Three months later, however, and they are still not a reality. Officials have since decided there are no tests good enough available, and there is no proof that the results will be of any use to the public.

Testing efforts slowed by centralised lab approach

Scientists in private labs, universities and research institutes across the country said in April that their offers to help with coronavirus testing had fallen on deaf ears.

PHE was pressing ahead with a ‘centralised’ model of testing in which only its own eight laboratories and some in NHS hospitals were being used to analyse tests.

‘Little ship’ labs, of which there are hundreds around the country, had the tools to process tests and could have increased testing capacity rapidly if officials had agreed to work with them, they said.

But it took Britain until the end of April to manage more than 100,000 tests in a day, while Germany had been managing the feat for weeks by utilising private laboratories.  

PHE – an executive agency of the Department of Health – was also criticised for refusing the offer of help from universities and private labs to carry out tests.

Yesterday the agency was at the head of a painful public row after the Government ordered the localised lockdown of Leicester to stop a new outbreak.

Councillors in the East Midlands city expressed their anger at a lack of testing data and information after the infection rate rose during the past two weeks.

Speaking last night, Mr Johnson said: ‘I know that there are plenty of things that people say and will say that we got wrong.

‘We owe that discussion and honesty to the tens of thousands who have died before their time, to the families who have lost loved ones, and of course there must be time to learn the lessons, and we will.’

He added: ‘The problems in our social care system, the parts of government that seemed to respond so sluggishly that sometimes it seemed like that recurring bad dream when you are telling your feet to run and your feet won’t move.’

A former Conservative health minister told The Telegraph: ‘I think PHE is destined for the chop, and the main issue is why we didn’t ramp up testing sooner’.

Among PHE’s alleged failures are that – according to another source – it has been ‘too slow’ and forced the Government to intervene to take over some of its functions.

And the Joint Biosecurity Centre, which was set up at the beginning of June and determines the UK’s COVID-19 alert level, was reportedly established to do the job PHE should have been doing.

The Telegraph added that the Treasury under Chancellor Rishi Sunak is reviewing plans about whether or not plans for a new PHE base in Harlow, Essex, should go ahead.

Mr Johnson’s comments came in a speech in which he vowed to move on from the coronavirus crisis with a package of spending measures.

Relaunching his Government, the Prime Minister pledged to bring forward ‘the most radical reforms of our planning system since the end of the Second World War’.

He said the move, which will see ministers take the axe to swathes of red tape, would pave the way for an ‘infrastructure revolution’ that would create jobs now and improve productivity long-term.

Mr Johnson said the Government wanted to ‘build, build, build’, but added that he would ‘build back better, build back greener, build back faster.’

Chancellor Rishi Sunak will lead a new unit, dubbed ‘Project Speed’ to fast track major infrastructure projects and identify bottlenecks in the system that need to be cleared away.

The Prime Minister hinted that he would also take the bulldozer to parts of the Whitehall machine, saying he had been frustrated by its ‘sluggish’ response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Families who’ve lost loved ones to coronavirus are preparing legal action against the Government over claims they would not have died had ministers locked down the country sooner, it was reported last night.

Around 1,000 grieving relatives say the Government ‘gambled’ with people’s lives when they failed to act quickly enough or heed the warnings from other countries as Covid-19 tore across Europe.

They also want an investigation into the flawed testing regime, the levels of protective clothing that was available and other issues surrounding planning for the pandemic.

The group has engaged lawyers for advice, are petitioning for a public inquiry and have demanded a meeting with the Prime Minister and Health Secretary.

Jo Goodman, spokesman for the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, whose father, Stuart, 72, contracted the virus the week before lockdown and died on April 2, said she was ‘appalled’ that the Government had so far ‘blanked’ their request to meet.

1,000 GRIEVING RELATIVES OF COVID-19 VICTIMS PREPARE LEGAL ACTION OVER GOVERNMENT TAKING TOO LONG TO LOCK DOWN 

Families who’ve lost loved ones to coronavirus are preparing legal action against the Government over claims they would not have died had ministers locked down the country sooner.

Around 1,000 grieving relatives say the Government ‘gambled’ with people’s lives when they failed to act quickly enough or heed the warnings from other countries as Covid-19 tore across Europe.

They also want an investigation into the flawed testing regime, the levels of protective clothing that was available and other issues surrounding planning for the pandemic.

The group has engaged lawyers for advice, are petitioning for a public inquiry and have demanded a meeting with the Prime Minister and Health Secretary.

Jo Goodman, spokesman for the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, whose father, Stuart, 72, contracted the virus the week before lockdown and died on April 2, said she was ‘appalled’ that the Government had so far ‘blanked’ their request to meet.

She said relatives were bereft by the lack of empathy or support from Whitehall and want ministers to launch an interim inquiry, ahead of a full public inquiry into the pandemic. ‘The Government must learn lessons, and quickly, to prevent more deaths should the predicted second wave hit the UK later in the year,’ she said.

If the Government refuses calls for a public inquiry, lawyers representing the families say they are prepared to challenge the decision via a judicial review at the High Court.

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