Tory MP calls government reluctance to follow Asian countries’ coronavirus response ‘systemic failure’

PUBLISHED: 11:48 12 May 2020 | UPDATED: 11:48 12 May 2020

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt during a House of Commons debate on Covid-19

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt during a House of Commons debate on Covid-19

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Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt has called the government’s reluctance to follow the way Asian countries responded to the coronavirus a “major blind spot”.

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Addressing the Commons, the former Tory leadership hopeful said the UK, US and Europe failed to follow in the footsteps of its Asian trading partners and implement a more vigorous coronavirus response.

He also claimed the “secrecy” of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) committee was also to blame for the country’s rising death toll and called for an overhaul of how scientific advice is administered to ministers.

“It is clear now that a major blind spot in the approach taken in Europe and America was caused by our focus on pandemic flu as opposed to pandemic coronaviruses such as SARS or MERS,” Hunt said.

“Asian countries took a different path. As a result (South) Korea had no more than nine deaths on any one day. Singapore is on just 20 deaths in total, Taiwan just 7.

“The failure to look at what these countries were doing at the outset will rank, I am afraid, as one of the biggest failures of scientific advice to ministers in our lifetimes.

“What is at fault is a systemic failure caused by the secrecy that shrouds everything SAGE does. Because its advice is not published it cannot be subjected to scientific challenge.”

Hunt argued that opening up the committee to greater scrutiny could have led ministers to continue pursing a contact tracing early on in the outbreak.

Instead, he blamed advisors for green-lighting events like the Cheltenham races in March and the Liverpool Champions League match which he said boosted infections to a level that made that a contact tracing programme ineffective.

He said: “Even though infections were doubling every five days, SAGE advised ministers against the lockdown and to continue with events like the Cheltenham Festival and a Liverpool Champions League match. That meant infections soon grew to a point where traditional contact tracing couldn’t cope.”

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