Cabinet minister Therese Coffey blames scientists for UK coronavirus response

19 May 2020, 14:14 | Updated: 19 May 2020, 14:22

Therese Coffey said: “You can only make judgements and decisions based on the information and advice that you have at the time."
Therese Coffey said: “You can only make judgements and decisions based on the information and advice that you have at the time.". Picture: Sky News
Ewan Somerville

By Ewan Somerville

The Work and Pensions Secretary has sparked a row after she took aim at “wrong” advice from scientists for ministers’ failures during the coronavirus pandemic.

Therese Coffey appeared to pile blame on Downing Street’s team of disease experts while being quizzed during a TV interview over the crisis in care homes.

It came as official figures were published on Tuesday morning showed more than 11,600 nursing home residents have died after contracting Covid-19.

Pressed on Sky News over whether the Government had got things wrong with “hindsight”, Ms Coffey said: “You can only make judgements and decisions based on the information and advice that you have at the time.

“If the science was wrong, advice at the time was wrong, I’m not surprised if people will then think we then made a wrong decision.”

She added: “We are getting advice from the scientists. It is for ministers to decide on policy.

“We have tried to take, every step of the way, making sure that we listen to the science, understand the science, and make decisions based on that.”

The Science and Technology Committee found that the lives of hospital and social care workers and care home residents were jeopardised by “inadequate” testing “when the spread of the virus was at its most rampant.

Cross-party MPs delivered the damning verdict that the lack of screening was the “most consequential” mistake in the crisis so far and that it needed to be “urgently” ramped up.

Ms Coffey’s comments came hours after the incoming president of the Royal Society, the oldest scientific academy, warned ministers not to pass the buck, saying: “Politicians ultimately must make the decisions.”

But Downing Street distanced itself from the senior minister Tuesday afternoon, with Boris Johnson’s spokesman telling reporters: “The Prime Minister is hugely grateful for the hard work and expertise of the UK’s world-leading scientists, we’ve been guided by their advice throughout and we continue to do so.

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“Scientists provide advice to the Government, ministers ultimately decide.”

Fresh Office for National Statistics data shows that the UK’s true Covid-19 death toll has now topped 44,000, with about a quarter of those in care homes.

Official guidance, which was in place until 12 March, said it was "very unlikely" that care home residents or those receiving care in the community would become infected.

Labour shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth, Labour’s has criticised ministers for failing to put care homes into “early lockdown” to stop the disease spreading.

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