Former chief scientific advisor Sir David King has said Westminster is being hampered in handling the pandemic due to opportunism and an inability to relate to ordinary people.
King referred to the £22bn spent on Test and Trace in England with private companies when he and others have argued local government could have achieved more at a fraction of the price – and in many cases have been asked to step in anyway.
He said: “If you have 5,000 new cases a day, it's overwhelming. You break it down to local authorities and it comes down to a manageable number. Now we're at over 30,000 a day and that is completely out of control.
“But if we had gone down the local council route, we would have managed this pandemic much more quickly. We would have saved well over 100,000 lives.”
King has repeatedly highlighted concerns around the way the Test and Trace system is operating, such as the lack of support for people isolating, and more recently how vaccination should not be over-relied upon at the expense of other measures.
He said: “If you look at the roll-out rate of the vaccine, it's not going to happen in a week. It's not going to happen before the end of February. We will begin to make progress. But what do we do about the current state of the epidemic in the country and what do we do about our economy?
“And both of these are impacted because we don't have the system in place to separate the healthy part of the population from that part with the illness, and that part that has been in touch with them, which is the whole point of the contact tracing.”
There have been numerous calls to action directed at Westminster around its handling of the pandemic from King, and the Independent Sage group of scientists that he founded, and from other public health figures, on a range of issues but particularly around the need to involve and fund local government.
King said: “But so why is the government deaf to this? I'm really worried about this because I think what has happened is that the government has followed a piece of Churchillian advice, which the Prime Minister has himself quoted, which is 'turn a crisis to your advantage'.
“And that can be interpreted to mean, 'Aha! Here's a pandemic, we can fund what is needed to be done in the private sector instead of in the public sector.' So I think this was driven by the belief that they could fund health care in Britain through the private sector, initiating it in a crisis, and therefore nobody will question it.”
King argued that this attitude has been able to prevail due to many politicians and media being divorced from reality. He said: “I don't think this government understands people at the local level at all.
“If you went to some public school somewhere and then on to Oxford, and your parents have a lot of money – and that basically describes many people in the government at the moment – there's no real understanding of what we're talking about.
“I think that's really the cause of the problem. But why are they getting away with it? I can only say that I think the media are in the hands of the same type of people.”
Westminster has also been criticised widely for a lack of empathy and its flip-flopping over whether or not to provide free school meals in the holidays, during the pandemic, while at the same time MPs benefit from hugely subsidised, restaurant quality meals in Parliament.
The recent scandal over school meal parcels has added fuel to this. King said: “I am so annoyed that the media haven't completely come down on the government… I mean the private companies that are getting government handouts to them to deliver this are obviously making a very big profit. You know, it's a fraction of the money they're being paid for each meal is going to the cost of the meal.”
Yesterday in the Commons it was revealed that around 3,000 consultants had been hired – 900 from accountancy firm Deloitte – on to the Test and Trace system charging daily fees of £1,000, at a total cost of at least £375m. The government defended the fees and said they did not believe firms were profiteering from the pandemic.