UK’s top bioscientist slams government for ‘failing’ to prepare NHS for coronavirus

Scientific expert Sir Paul Nurse claims that ministers were 'on the backfoot' when it came to dealin

Scientific expert Sir Paul Nurse claims that ministers were 'on the backfoot' when it came to dealing with the coronavirus - Credit: Archant

Sir Paul Nurse has slammed Boris Johnson's government over coronavirus, claiming that they knew the UK was unprepared for a global pandemic as far back as 2016 and failed to act in time.

The former Noble Peace Prize winner said the inaction had handicapped the NHS during the coronavirus outbreak.

Nurse told Question Time viewers: 'We were totally unprepared for it and we should have been totally prepared for it. The fact was there was a review of the NHS and how it would work in a pandemic - an influenza one - it was never published - it happened three years ago - and we didn't do well. In fact we failed.'

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He said the NHS has had to play 'catch up' since the virus arrived in the country and that a review of the government's response to it will show that 'we did not do very well.'

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Operation Cygnus was a simulated exercise to assess how the UK's main health infrastructure would cope during a global influenza pandemic. Results of the 2016 exercise were never released.

Nurse also criticised Matt Hancock's 100,000-a-day coronavirus testing target, calling it a 'PR stunt' which he claims lacked a 'visible strategy'. He said the health department could have slowed the spread of covid-19 in care homes by testing patients returning from hospital as well as staff sooner.

'If we had had local testing connected to local hospitals, we could have made hospitals a safe place,' he said, '(Instead) what we had is the potential for having care workers working on the wards, working with sick patients who were carrying the disease and weren't being tested.'

Nurse acknowledged the country did not have the capacity to carry out mass testing back in March.

Dr Joe Pajak welcomed Nurse's comments: 'At last some balance #BBCQT. Paul Nurse speaks with authority and common sense; a renowned scientist whose expertise and assessment of this #Covid-19 crisis, should make even the most avid supporter of the government, stop, look, and listen. Because. It's not looking good.'

Others agreed. One stressed it was a 'matter of human rights law' the government not deliberately expose people to policies that could cost lives: 'The government is under an express obligation to protect life – they cannot pursue a course of action that knowingly puts lives at risk.'

Ian Stenhouse, hinting at the fact Michael Gove had only read the entire report of Operation Cygnus last week, joked: 'It appears that the only people in the entire country not to have heard of the 2016 Exercise Cygnus, that highlighted the risks of a pandemic, are the entire government frontbench.'

John disagreed: 'Nothing the government could have done. The virus is going to continue to spread regardless and people are inevitably going to die. The government could order a permanent lockdown for the regular flu, ban roofing, cars etc. it might be over reaction but it would save lives....'

Michael Gove admitted on Tuesday during a meeting of a Commons select committee that the government had not planned for a pandemic like the coronavirus, as it was focused on a response to a global influenza.

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