Minister hits out at ‘hindsight’ in report criticising Government Covid response

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A minister has defended the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic after a cross-party report from MPs concluded that serious errors cost thousands of lives.

Minister for the Cabinet Office Stephen Barclay told Sky News’ Kay Burley the Government “did take decisions to move quickly”, including on vaccines, and that both scientists and ministers were acting on information they had at the time.

However, he admitted he had “not had chance to read” the MPs’ report, which was circulated to the media under embargo on Monday morning and also seen by Government departments, including his own Cabinet Office.

Deaths involving Covid-19 in England & Wales
(PA Graphics)

Mr Barclay, who was repeatedly asked to apologise for Government failings but did not, said: “It was an unprecedented pandemic, we were learning about it as we went through and of course, with hindsight, there’s things we know about it now that we didn’t know at the time.

“Of course there are going to be lessons to learn, that’s why we’ve committed to an inquiry, but the Government took decisions at the time based on the scientific advice it received, but those scientists themselves were operating in a very new environment where they themselves were learning about the pandemic.”

On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Barclay was asked if the Government was too slow to go into the first lockdown – a key criticism in the MPs’ report.

He said: “Well I think there is an issue there of hindsight, because at the time of the first lockdown the expectation was that the tolerance in terms of how long people would live with lockdown for was a far shorter period than actually has proven to be the case, and therefore there was an issue of timing the lockdown and ensuring that that was done at the point of optimal impact.

“And so it is a point of hindsight to now say that the way that decision was shaped and how long we could lock down for… because we now know that there was much more willingness for the country to endure that than was originally envisaged.”

Mr Barclay denied there had been groupthink on handling the pandemic, even though former health secretary and fellow Tory MP Jeremy Hunt, who chairs the Commons health committee, said there had been.

“No, I don’t accept that, and we followed the scientific advice throughout. We protected the NHS from the surge of pressure that we saw in other countries, such as Italy, and we can’t apply hindsight to the challenges that we faced,” Mr Barclay said.

Asked whether he agreed, however, that it was an “appalling error” not to introduce a second lockdown earlier, even though scientists on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) recommended one six weeks before it was introduced, Mr Barclay said: “No I don’t, because I think there were difficult judgments to be made. We followed the scientific advice throughout, we took action to protect our NHS, we got a vaccine deployed in record time, but I don’t shy away from the fact that there will be lessons to learn.”

The report, from MPs on the Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee, said the UK’s preparation for a pandemic was far too focused on flu, while ministers waited too long to push through lockdown measures in early 2020.

In the wide-ranging study stretching to 151 pages, MPs criticised the fact community testing was abandoned in March 2020 as a “seminal error”, said NHS test and trace was too slow and failed to have a big impact, and that thousands of people died in care homes partly due to a policy of discharging people from hospital without testing.

At the beginning of the pandemic, when Covid-19 emerged in China, MPs said the UK policy was to mistakenly take a “gradual and incremental approach” to interventions such as social distancing, isolation and lockdowns.

They said this was “a deliberate policy” proposed by scientists and adopted by UK governments, which has now been shown to be “wrong” and led to a higher death toll.

The MPs concluded that the “decisions on lockdowns and social distancing during the early weeks of the pandemic – and the advice that led to them – rank as one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced”.

After hearing evidence from people including the Prime Minister’s former adviser, Dominic Cummings, and former health secretary Matt Hancock, the MPs said it was only in the days leading up to the March 23 lockdown that people within Government and advisers “experienced simultaneous epiphanies that the course the UK was following was wrong, possibly catastrophically so”.

Speaking on Tuesday morning, Mr Hunt, who was health secretary from 2012 to 2018, admitted he was part of the “groupthink” that focused too much on flu and failed to adequately plan for a pandemic such as Covid.

He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain the UK should have locked down earlier and “the Prime Minister is of course ultimately responsible, but some of the advice that he got was also wrong”.

Mr Hunt added: “There was a groupthink that the way you tackle a pandemic should be similar to a flu pandemic, I was part of that groupthink too when I was health secretary.”

Questioned on the impact of the Prime Minister’s personality early on in the pandemic, and whether Boris Johnson did not want to shut down the nation in case it was “unpopular”, Mr Hunt said that “every prime minister’s personality matters but in this particular case, on those particular decisions, he was following the scientific advice, and the question we have to ask is why across the whole of the system in those early months, everyone was advising the wrong approach?”

Mr Hunt also said that when images of the pandemic in Italy hit TV screens in the UK, the focus was on hospitals rather than other places such as care homes.

He added: “We say this was like a football match with two very different halves, and yes there were those very serious errors that… led to many tragedies.

“But in the second half of the match, we have the vaccine programme which was, we say, the most effective initiative in the history of British science and public administration, we had the discovery of treatments like dexamethasone in the UK which saved a million lives worldwide, we had that extraordinary response in the NHS which saw everyone who needed a ventilator and an intensive care bed, got one.”

Meanwhile, Tory MP Greg Clark, who chairs the Commons science committee, told BBC Breakfast that “other countries elsewhere in the world, particularly in East Asia” quickly mobilised testing capacity so they could test people in the community and isolate them, which “allowed them to get a grip of the pandemic earlier than we were able to do”.

He said increasing testing capacity in the UK was “painfully” slow, adding that if everyone coming out of hospital into a care home could have been tested “then undoubtedly we could have stopped the seeding of infections into care homes”.

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