LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Britain's top scientists said the government made a string of failures in its handling of the coronavirus crisis, putting its leader Boris Johnson under pressure on live television.
Standing next to the Prime Minister, the country's chief medical officer Chris Whitty appeared to call him out on a "long list" of potentially flawed decisions that will need to be reviewed. At the much-watched daily news conference on Wednesday (June 10), the epidemiologist admitted that his greatest regret was Britain's slow response.
His comments came on the same day of another damning critique from a highly respected medical expert. Prof Neil Ferguson, a specialist who worked on modelling the outbreak in its earlier stages, said that had Britain acted sooner, the death toll could have at least been halved.
Caught in the line of fire, Mr Johnson sought to deflect. He said it was premature to draw conclusions. He also pushed back on Prof Ferguson's criticism, saying that Britain followed the advice of its Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), of which Prof Ferguson was a member at the time.
"All such judgments will need to be examined in the fullness of time," he said, when pressed on whether he would've done anything differently. "It's simply too early to judge ourselves."
With more than 41,000 coronavirus deaths so far, Britain has the second-highest toll in the world after the United States, and the government has faced a cascade of criticism over its response to the pandemic. The admissions by the scientists are some of the frankest yet by senior figures. Mr Johnson's ratings have taken a tumble in spite of winning a landslide election less than six months ago.
The Prime Minister, who contracted the virus and almost died of it, has struggled to manage the biggest crisis of his premiership. Public opinion believe his closest adviser, Mr Dominic Cummings, violated lockdown rules and that has affected trust in the government. Meanwhile, while the rest of Europe is opening up its borders, Britain is still largely shut down.
The landscape is now complicated by a conflict between scientists and government that has spilled out in the open.
"There's a long list actually of things that we need to look at very seriously," Prof Whitty told journalists, when asked what he regretted about Britain's efforts. "If I were to choose one, it would probably be looking at how we could speed up testing very early on in the epidemic."
He said there were "many other" issues that will need to be re-examined ahead of a possible second wave in winter, but "many of the problems that we had" came from the lack of testing evidence on the outbreak.
"We were trying to see our way through the fog," he said.
Mr Johnson is trying to return the country to normality as the number of new deaths from the coronavirus slows.
People can already meet in parks and gardens so long as they maintain social distancing, and car showrooms and outdoor markets were allowed to reopen on June 1. From next Monday, non-essential shops will be allowed to reopen, as well as zoos, safari parks and drive-in cinemas.
But chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said Britain needs to get its test-and-trace system properly up and running and that they will need to look back at the efficacy of their initial virus response to learn lessons for future outbreaks.
The clash with the scientists came after Mr Johnson announced a further easing of limits on social contact: under the new rules, single-adult households will be allowed to form bubbles with others who can support them.
From this weekend, adults who live alone, as well as single-parent families, will be able to form a support "bubble" with one other household, which can have more than one adult. They won't have to heed social distancing rules requiring people to stay 2m away from each other. But households won't be able to link up with more than one other under the plan.
"There are still too many people, particularly those who live by themselves, who are lonely and struggling with being unable to see friends and family," Mr Johnson said. "It's a targeted intervention to limit the most harmful effects of the current restrictions."
He stressed that there's a balance of risk to be struck.
"I have to be very mindful of the risk of new outbreaks," he said. "My judgment at present is we must proceed cautiously."
The government is walking a tightrope, trying to balance the need to be careful with the pressure to get life back to normal. Nowhere is the tension more stark than on education, where the government was forced to abandon a plan for all primary school children to return before September. Mr Johnson said social distance guidelines and the need for small classes had made it impossible.
The latest plan now is for all children to get back to school after the summer, and the Telegraph newspaper reported that Mr Johnson is planning to drop the 2m social distancing rule by September to ensure all students would be able to return to education, without saying where it got the information.