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Public health professor says NHS testing system ’emaciated’ by Tory cuts

Dr Gabriel Scally has responded to former Cabinet minister David Gauke’s defence of the cuts.

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Dr Gabriel Scally has criticised the Government for cuts to the public health system (Niall Carson/PA)

Dr Gabriel Scally has criticised the Government for cuts to the public health system (Niall Carson/PA)

Dr Gabriel Scally has criticised the Government for cuts to the public health system (Niall Carson/PA)

Conservative government cuts have “emaciated” the testing system and made the ability to track down coronavirus cases more difficult, a public health professor has claimed.

Gabriel Scally, a former regional director of public health, said he was “very worried” about the country’s ability to get to the levels of contact tracers needed, saying 10 years ago it would have been possible – but cuts have damaged this.

His anger was in response to Conservative former Cabinet minister David Gauke’s defence of reductions in public spending, warning of an “even more difficult situation” without austerity as he tried to focus on resilience.

But the Bristol University professor told BBC Newsnight: “I think that’s nonsense if I may be so bold.

“The resilience has been stripped systematically out of the system, you cannot, when a big problem like this hits, you can’t just reinvent things and put them back the way you wish they were.

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Confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK.

Confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK.

Press Association Images

Confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK.

“If you make the system as lean and emaciated as it is there will not be the public health staff there, there will not be the health visitors, there will not be the environmental health officers and you can’t magic them up out of nowhere.

“Simply testing key workers, health service workers and the over 65s really won’t cut it, so it needs to be a comprehensive programme,” he added.

Meanwhile, Sir Paul Nurse, chief executive of biomedical research centre the Francis Crick Institute, labelled the Government’s target of 100,000 coronavirus tests per day “a PR stunt”.

On April 2, Health Secretary Matt Hancock pledged to reach the target by the end of the month.

However only 52,000 tests were carried out on Tuesday.

Speaking on BBC Question Time, Sir Paul said there had been no visible strategy behind the 100,000 target.

“It was, as far as I’m concerned, a bit of a PR stunt which has gone a bit wrong,” he said.

“Where was the strategy under that? I haven’t seen a strategy under it. It just sounded good.”

Sir Paul added that the Government missed the opportunity to make hospitals safer by mass testing healthcare workers regardless of whether they were showing symptoms.

“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.

“They had such restricted rules on who could be tested that they didn’t simply make the decision that we have to test everybody that is a frontline worker and, in particular, they wouldn’t test anybody who had no symptoms.

“We were allowing potentially for frontline care workers to be on the wards potentially infecting people because we weren’t testing.

“Now that may have been because they didn’t have testing capacity throughout the country but you can’t simply say we don’t need to do it because we don’t have testing capacity and even when we could provide testing capacity we couldn’t do it because of the NHS rules.

“Testing was absolutely critical, it hasn’t been handled properly.”

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said he thought Government testing for coronavirus would have been a “success” even if the 100,000 target was not met on time.

Mr Jenrick made the remarks to Sky News on Friday morning before the announcement of the official testing figures.

“I think we will either have met it or be very close, and in that sense the target will have succeeded because it will have galvanised people across government, in the private sector and across the country,” he said.

“This in itself is just a stepping stone, we need to go beyond 100,000, but we have seen now a very substantial increase in testing in quite a short period of time, so in that sense it’s been a success, but there’s more to be done.”

PA