Ex-PMs lobbied Boris Johnson in summer to increase Covid testing, Osborne claims

Former chancellor says ex-boss David Cameron and three other previous leaders called for more focus on test-and-trace

Tony Blair, David Cameron and John Major at a memorial service for ex-Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown
(Image credit: Chris J Ratcliffe/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Four former UK prime ministers wrote to their reigning counterpart months ago pleading for the “full weight of the British state” to be thrown behind efforts to increase coronavirus testing, George Osborne has revealed.

David Cameron’s ex-chancellor told Times Radio that his former boss, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and John Major “wrote privately to Boris Johnson in July, saying this was the priority”, The Times reports.

Blair, an outspoken advocate for mass testing, enlisted his predecessor and two successors to join him in arguing the case for Johnson to “make mass testing his priority to help allow normal life to resume”, the newspaper adds.

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Echoing their message, Osborne said: “It’s been too much something that has been given to the health department, given to the NHS, and the rest of the government has not thrown the full weight of the British state behind it.”

Last month, it was revealed that the government was advertising a £2,000-a-day job for a director of operations to fix the faltering test-and-trace system. And the head of the government’s vaccine taskforce, Kate Bingham, is to step down at the end of the year following a string of scandals.

The Sunday Times revealed earlier this month that Bingham - who is married to Conservative Treasury minister Jesse Norman - had disclosed “sensitive” government data about which vaccines the UK may invest in to a “$200-a-head conference in America”.

The paper then reported last weekend that she had spent £670,000 of UK taxpayers’ money to pay a team of boutique relations consultants to oversee her media strategy.

The beleaguered chair is expected to step down when her contract expires in January, according to a government source, who told The Guardian that it “had always been clear” this was her intention.

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Joe Evans is the world news editor at TheWeek.co.uk. He joined the team in 2019 and held roles including deputy news editor and acting news editor before moving into his current position in early 2021. He is a regular panellist on The Week Unwrapped podcast, discussing politics and foreign affairs. 

Before joining The Week, he worked as a freelance journalist covering the UK and Ireland for German newspapers and magazines. A series of features on Brexit and the Irish border got him nominated for the Hostwriter Prize in 2019. Prior to settling down in London, he lived and worked in Cambodia, where he ran communications for a non-governmental organisation and worked as a journalist covering Southeast Asia. He has a master’s degree in journalism from City, University of London, and before that studied English Literature at the University of Manchester.