9 March 2021

Jenny Harries has got Covid consistently wrong – she should not be rewarded


Jenny Harries, England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, is reportedly in line to head up a new UK-wide agency tasked with overseeing public health and battling pandemics.

The National Institute for Health Protection is taking over responsibility for pandemics from the much-maligned Public Health England (PHE), which has rightly carried the can for its ill-preparedness for the pandemic, and the infamous testing fiasco.

Why, then, has the Government apparently plumped for a figure who epitomises the public health establishment that has failed so badly over the last year? Not only was Harries previously a regional director for PHE, the very body Boris Johnson criticised for its “sluggish” pandemic response, but her personal pronouncements have been consistently wrong, misinformed the public and put people at risk.

The list of misjudgments is quite striking.

As late as March 10 last year Harries continued to resist calls to cancel large events — claiming she was “following the science” — and played down the severity of the virus. This was after Britain had already imported thousands of cases, and the likes of Italy, France and Germany had banned large events. Even at that late stage she also thought it was still inappropriate to ask people with symptoms to self-isolate.

Harries then went on to make false claims that face masks increase the chance of infection. These days similar comments would result in a ban from YouTube and Facebook. She also claimed that there were “perfectly adequate” supplies of personal protective equipment, just as hospitals were running out.

She was even dismissive of the strategy taken by Singapore, who now have 370 times fewer deaths per capita than the UK, and South Korea, who have 57 times fewer deaths.

Harries then declared that community testing was “not an appropriate intervention”. This would be a shock to all the countries, from Taiwan to Australia, who have kept tests high and deaths low. A week after Harries’ infamous comments the Health Secretary announced the new target of 100,000 tests per a day. Subsequent research found that even the UK’s imperfect Test & Trace saved lives.

Harries later said that ending testing was driven by capacity shortages. But, notably, she foreshadowed ending community testing weeks before capacity ran out. This was consistent with the broader lack of ambition to use testing and tracing to combat a large outbreak of Covid-19. Like so many others in our public health establishment, Harries also advocated for hand washing, ignoring airborne droplets and the importance of ventilation.

If anything, Harries should apologise to the public for her consistently incorrect comments. Instead, despite the litany of misjudgments in dealing with Covid, she may end up being responsible for preventing future pandemics.

The establishment of the National Institute for Health Protection was meant to be an opportunity to shake up the public health system after last year’s failures. If that is to happen, the Government must appoint someone who is both competent and truly independent-minded, perhaps from an entirely different background than public health. Or perhaps they could find a senior official from South Korea or Taiwan, given how successfully those countries have contained Covid.

Either way, what’s needed is a fresh perspective, not more of the same. Opting for another figure from our misfiring public health establishment would be rewarding mediocrity and encouraging the very mistakes that got us to this point. After the horrors of the last year, the British public deserve better.

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Matthew Lesh is Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.