Dame Sally Davies accused of trying to worm her way out of PHE’s shambolic role in Covid pandemic

Dame Sally Davies has been accused of trying to worm her way out of blame for Public Health England’s shambolic role in Covid-19 pandemic

Dame Sally Davies was today accused of trying to worm her way out of blame for Public Health England’s shambolic role in Covid-19 pandemic.

England’s former chief medical officer launched a scathing attack on the body, saying the UK was ‘not as well prepared as we should have been’ and claiming official had not recognised coronavirus as a potential threat.

Dame Sally, nicknamed ‘nanny-in-chief’ for her bold interventions, said PHE told her a coronavirus from Asia would ‘never travel this far’.

She alleged the agency, which is already set to be abolished and replaced over its lacklustre role in the pandemic, ignored her calls to carry out a rehearsal to an outbreak of a coronavirus in 2015. 

Professor John Ashton, former director of public health in the North West, slammed Dame Sally for only speaking up now, several years later.

He said she, along with several other high up figures, were now trying to ‘gloss over’ their part ‘in this Shakespearean tragedy’ and accused her of ‘re-writing her own part in this disaster’. 

Professor Ashton told MailOnline: ‘In a nutshell I agree with what she said, but I think she is disingenuous in what she is saying now, and she didn’t say it earlier.’ He added ‘she didn’t speak up for public health’ at the time.

Professor John Ashton, the former director of public health in the North West, slammed Dame Sally for only speaking up about PHE's failings to prepare for a coronavirus pandemic now, several years after she first raised concerns with the agency in 2015

Professor John Ashton, the former director of public health in the North West, slammed Dame Sally for only speaking up about PHE’s failings to prepare for a coronavirus pandemic now, several years after she first raised concerns with the agency in 2015

Dame Sally, 70, is expected to accuse PHE of misleading the Government into practising for the ‘wrong pandemic’ at an independent public inquiry into Covid-19, ordered by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Instead of running a dummy pandemic of a coronavirus, as she called for in 2015, PHE decided to focus on influenza.

A spokesman for PHE said today planning for an influenza pandemic was the focus as it was top of the National Risk Assessment. 

Dame Sally told The Daily Telegraph: ‘We didn’t practise how to stop a coronavirus spreading because we were told by PHE that the next big one would be influenza, and they didn’t believe it could be stopped.

‘One day we will certainly get another flu pandemic, so we prepared for that, and I think we prepared well. But none of the experts seemed to think a coronavirus would be relevant.


A secret Whitehall document condemning the UK’s ‘insufficient’ preparedness for a health pandemic such as the coronavirus outbreak was published in May. 

The analysis, based on a 2016 simulation of a flu pandemic, codenamed Exercise Cygnus, identified a ‘lack of joint tactical-level plans’ for a public health emergency, with demand for services outstripping local capacity. 

The 57-page Public Health England report, leaked to The Guardian, also identified concerns about the expectation that the social care system would be able to provide the level of support needed in the event of a serious outbreak.  

The Cygnus drill document found the possible impacts of a pandemic were not universally understood across Whitehall.

It said: ‘The UK’s preparedness and response, in terms of its plans, policies and capability, is currently not sufficient to cope with the extreme demands of a severe pandemic that will have a nationwide impact across all sectors.’ 

Ministers have acknowledged the presence of the Cygnus report throughout the coronavirus pandemic, with Health Secretary Matt Hancock telling reporters last month that ‘everything that was appropriate to do was done’. 

The exercise, which lasted less than a week, involved participants responding to a dummy pandemic scenario in real time, engaging with the press and communicating messages to the public. 

The document analysing the efficacy of the simulation identified four key lessons, including to be more prepared for a pandemic by better understanding of how the public would react to a worst-case scenario health crisis. 

It also stated the Government was ‘lacking’ the capability and capacity to surge resources into key areas were a pandemic to be declared. 

‘I did ask during a conversation in my office in around 2015, should we do Sars? But I was told no, because it wouldn’t reach us properly. They said it would die out and would never travel this far.

‘So I did ask, but it was the Public Health England people who said we didn’t need to do it, and I’ll say that to Parliament.

‘That advice meant we never seriously sat down and said: “Will we have a massive pandemic of something else?”‘

Professor Ashton, who worked as a director in the North West for almost two decades, echoed Dame Sally’s grievances with PHE’s handling of the coronavirus.

But he questioned why she has stayed silent on the topic for several months of the pandemic – and years after initially airing her concerns in 2015.

Professor Ashton said: ‘I agree wholeheartedly with what she said. But why not commented on this earlier this year?

‘When I was commenting in February and March, it would’ve been helpful to have the former CMO to support what I was saying. But I was left out there on my own.’

Dame Sally was involved in the practise flu outbreak simulation codenamed ‘Exercise Cygnus’ in 2015.

The existence of Exercise Cygnus only became apparent earlier this year after being kept secret for years.

The secret Whitehall document condemning the UK’s ‘insufficient’ preparedness for a health pandemic such as the coronavirus outbreak was finally published in May.

Professor Ashton said: ‘She was fully in the picture of that exercise and said it was really quite shocking what they found.

‘Apart from making some comment at the time, she didn’t put weight as the CMO for publishing that report in 2016. She could have insisted that saw that light and was acted on. But she didn’t.

‘She’s not alone in now re-writing her own part in this disaster. Sir Patrick Vallance has been re-writing his part in this, in as much denying that he supported herd immunity… And the modellers have been re-writing what they said in the early months.

‘They are all trying to put their own gloss on their part in this Shakespearean tragedy.’

Dame Sally Davies denied to comment on the allegations when contacted through Trinity College, Cambridge, for where she works.

Professors Ashton has written a book he hopes will also become reference to the inquiry – Blinded by Corona: How the Pandemic Ruined Britain’s Health and Wealth.

In his scathing critique he attacks the UK Government’s for being unprepared. He told MailOnline: ‘This is about the weakness of public health in this country.

‘The mentality that we are an island and therefore we are okay. But the World Health Organization has been very clear for over 20 years we all need to be prepared for a pandemic.’ 

Exercise Cygnus, in which officials responded to a fake pandemic in real time, was set seven weeks into a flu pandemic, to practise how to cope with overwhelmed hospitals, for example.

Ministers and other officials, however, did not rehearse what to do to actually stop a highly contagious disease spreading in the first place.

As a result, there were no plans in place to scale up mass testing or build a robust contact tracing system – unlike other countries, particularly in Asia, who managed to keep Covid-19 largely under control.

PHE was at the forefront of testing when cases of Covid-19 arrived on British soil.

But it stopped doing this on 12 March because the coronavirus had become too widespread to control. Instead, PHE shifted testing to prioritise the sickest patients leaving millions with mild symptoms untested.

When it finally ramped up testing to reach all people with symptoms on May 18, it involved private companies Deloitte and Serco setting up testing sites – which Professor Ashton said was a ‘complete failure’.

The expertise of regional and local public health teams – which have been doing testing and tracing work for some 100 years – were neglected.

It came after local health teams being run down for years by a ‘centralised, London-centric’ PHE, Professor Ashton said.

He added: ‘Because it’s been allowed to run down it didn’t have the capacity, and that gave the Government the excuse to privatise it with Serco, Sitel and Deloitte.

‘Sally Davies didn’t speak up for public health as the chief medical officer. Duncan Selbie didn’t speak up for local and regional public health as chief executive of PHE.

‘We are seeing the consequences of that now.’ 

In response to Dame Sally’s claims, a PHE spokesperson said: ‘The claim that PHE ignored threats other than flu is wrong.

‘Dame Sally Davies participated in exercises which planned specifically for a coronavirus scenario in the UK, among other health threats. 

‘In all of our time working with Dame Sally Davies we agreed that the country should prepare for all health protection threats including infections caused by different organisms such as coronaviruses.’  

A government spokesperson said: ‘This is an unprecedented pandemic and we have taken the right steps at the right time to combat it, guided at all times by the best scientific advice, to protect the NHS and save lives.

‘There is a huge amount of work going on behind the scenes, all of which would not be possible without the years of preparation undertaken for a pandemic, including flu and other infectious diseases like MERS, SARS and Ebola.’ 


Public Health England has come under fire for a number of its responses to the Covid-19 crisis.

Its directors have tried to divert blame, claiming that major decisions are taken by Government ministers in the Department of Health, but the body has been accused of being controlling.

These are some of the failures for which PHE has been blamed:

Stopping mass testing and tracing

On March 12 the Government announced it would no longer test everybody who was thought to have coronavirus, and it would stop tracking the contacts of the majority of cases to try and stop the spread of the disease.

As a result, Britain effectively stopped tracking the virus and it was allowed to spiral out of control.

Conservative MP David Davis said that was ‘precisely the wrong thing to do’.

Professor Yvonne Doyle, PHE’s medical director, told MPs in May: ‘It was a decision that was come to because of the sheer scale of cases in the UK.’

She added: ‘We knew that if this epidemic continued to increase we would certainly need more capacity.’

PHE said: ‘Widespread contact tracing was stopped because increased community transmission meant it was no longer the most useful strategy.’

Counting deaths inaccurately 

It emerged last month that Public Health England had been counting coronavirus deaths by checking a list of people who had ever tested positive to see if they were still alive.

The cause of someone’s death, nor how long it had been since their positive test result, were not taken into account and the agency was accused of ‘over-exaggerating’ the numbers of people who were dying each day.

An investigation into the method by the Department of Health saw 5,000 deaths wiped from the UK’s official tally.  

The statistical flaw was uncovered by Oxford University’s Professor Carl Heneghan and Dr Yoon Loke, from the University of East Anglia. 

Matt Hancock has since brought the figures in line with Scotland and Northern Ireland, which only attribute deaths to Covid-19 if it occurs within a month of their diagnosis. 

Lack of contact tracing capacity

Papers published by Government scientists on SAGE revealed that PHE only had the capacity to cope with five new cases a week on February 18.

Only nine cases had been diagnosed at the time.

PHE experts said modelling suggested capacity could increased ten-fold to 50 new cases a week — allowing them to contact 8,000 people a day.

SAGE said: ‘When there is sustained transmission in the UK, contact tracing will no longer be useful.’

Britain’s cases jumped started to jump by 50 each day at the beginning of March.

Pledged antibody tests in March

PHE’s Professor Sharon Peacock said on March 25 that the UK was on course to have antibody tests available to the public that month.

She confirmed the Government had bought 3.5million of the tests and was evaluating their quality.

They could be available to the public ‘within days’, she said at a Downing Street briefing.

Three months later, however, and they are still not a reality. Officials have since decided there are no tests good enough available, and there is no proof that the results will be of any use to the public.

Testing efforts slowed by ‘centralised’ lab approach

Scientists in private labs, universities and research institutes across the country said in April that their offers to help with coronavirus testing had fallen on deaf ears.

Only eight PHE laboratories and some in NHS hospitals were being used to analyse tests during the start of the crisis.

‘Little ship’ labs had tools to process tests and could have increased testing capacity rapidly if officials had agreed to work with them, they said.

But it took Britain until the end of April to manage more than 100,000 tests in a day. Germany had been managing the feat for weeks by utilising private laboratories. 

PHE says it did not ‘constrain or seek to control any laboratory either public, university or commercial from conducting testing for Covid-19’.

It claimed that it requested officials changed testing methods in January to allow for any testing facility to conduct diagnostic tests.

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