PROFESSOR John Ashton is one of the UK’s most outspoken public health experts.

At the age of 73, after a 40-year career that included a six-year stint as Cumbria’s most senior public health official, he is showing no sign of going quiet any time soon.

For years he has spoken out about what he sees as chronic underfunding for the UK’s public health establishment.

Over the last eight months, this father-of-six has found what he sees as the perfect illustration of the “folly” of allowing public health provision to atrophy.

Ashton has just published a book on the pandemic: Blinded by Corona. A former president of the Faculty of Public Health, and Labour Party member, who openly supports Keir Starmer’s leadership, he describes himself as centre-left in his politics.

“But the coronavirus is not a party political issue,” he says.

Almost every expert who has spoken publicly about Covid-19 acknowledges that the pandemic is unprecedented – a public health challenge the likes of which has never been seen in any person’s living memory.

Among the key charges laid out in his book is this: “Epidemics should be handled by on-the-ground local public-health teams intimately familiar with the social groups in their area.

“They can adapt and communicate effective hygiene and social-distancing requirements to the fine-grained variety of stratification – from prison populations to vacationers, from second-homers to immigrant groups.

“This fundamental science has served Britain well during many epidemics and scares, from salmonella, legionella, novichok and Swine ‘flu to the Spanish ‘flu and cholera beyond.”

Professor Ashton believes the UK could have ‘got to grips’ with the pandemic during February.

“The World Health Organisation declared a public health emergency of international concern on January 30 but Boris Johnson was distracted by Brexit.

“He was on a high because he’d got the Brexit legislation through the Commons and he failed even to attend the first five Cobra meetings on the pandemic. They ended up doing too little too late.”

Ashton is particularly critical of the government’s failure, as he sees it, to win the trust of the population whose compliance with the regulations during lockdown were so vital to containing and suppressing the virus.

With four weeks of lockdown ahead of us, he says it is vital that the Government wins the trust of people they need to protect.

He says: “It’s about trust and transparency of data.

“The trust was damaged by the Dominic Cummings affair and by what happened with Chief Medical Officer in Scotland, who broke the rules and resigned.

“It was as if those in charge felt that the rules applied to everybody but not to them.

“The data also has to be trusted. But they’ve manipulated the data.”

In particular, says professor Ashton, the Covid-19 death figures do not include those people who have died at a point beyond 28 days after they were diagnosed.

“That’s not the clinical reality of the virus,” he says. He believes the true number of Covid-19 deaths is beyond the current official figure, which this week rose to above 47,000. He points to the early confusion over deaths in care homes, described by some observers as a hidden tragedy.

He also wants politicians to accept they have handled the crisis badly – and listen to a broad range of views to learn and improve their response. If there is any good news in his analysis of how the crisis has been handled, it can be found in Cumbria.

Here at least, says Ashton, local public health experts know the value of having dedicated teams who work on contact tracing.

The system was initially adapted from a pre-existing contact tracing operation that was in place for those affected by sexual health issues.

The county’s Public Health Director Colin Cox says there are probably around 20 to 25 people currently involved in this vital work across Cumbria. Asked if it was enough, he replies without hesitation: “Absolutely not. We probably need at least twice that many but we are now getting additional resources from central Government.”

He says he and his colleagues have long argued for the need to ensure that public health issues are organised and tackled locally, not centrally by civil servants hiring private sector companies (some with little or no relevant previous experience).

Mr Cox says: “We’re very proud of what we’ve been doing in Cumbria and we’ve long been calling for the localisation of this kind for work.

“We initially adapted our contact tracing from the sexual health services but we then built a system from scratch.

“It now uses environmental health staff and Public Health England staff.” As for the future, Mr Cox says what happens now will depend on society’s willingness and ability to suppress the virus.

Every one of us can contribute to that goal by following the rules – not mixing, staying at home, wearing masks, and frequently washing our hands.

The latest figures from Cumbria County Council make for sobering reading.

In the latest week for which figures are available, the county saw 957 new cases – a 9 per cent rise on the figure for the previous week.

For the second week in a row, Carlisle had the highest number of new cases – 224, followed by South Lakeland.

The NHS trust which runs Furness General Hospital has seen a surge in deaths in recent days. Thankfully, at the Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle, that surge has not happened.

But as Boris Johnson told the House of Commons this week, only a national lockdown – reluctantly approved by MPs fearful of the dire cost – will save NHS hospitals from being overwhelmed, and doctors choosing who will get treatment and who will not.

He told the Commons: “As Prime Minister, when I am confronted with data that projects our NHS could even collapse, with deaths in this second wave potentially exceeding those of the first; and when I look at what is happening now amongst some of our continental friends and see doctors who have tested positive being ordered alas to work on covid wards, and patients airlifted to hospitals in some other countries simply to make space... I can reach only one conclusion: I am not prepared to take the risk with the lives of the British people...if we did not act now, then the chance of the NHS being in extraordinary trouble in December would be very, very high.”

* Blinded by Corona: How the pandemic ruined Britain's health and wealth and what to do about it was published by GibsonSquare Publishers and is available from major book stores and online.