Covid pandemic response ‘one of the UK’s worst public health failures’, damning report finds

·5-min read
Covid pandemic response ‘one of the UK’s worst public health failures’, damning report finds

Serious errors and delays by the Government and scientific advisers cost lives during the pandemic, according to a damning report from MPs.

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, it states.

MPs said the UK’s pandemic planning was too “narrowly and inflexibly based on a flu model” that failed to learn the lessons from Sars, Mers and Ebola.

The report comes from the cross-party Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee,

Former chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies told MPs there was “groupthink”, with infectious disease experts not believing that “Sars, or another Sars, would get from Asia to us”.

The UK’s national risk register, which was in place at the start of the pandemic, said “the likelihood of an emerging infectious disease spreading within the UK is assessed to be lower than that of a pandemic flu”.

It also said only up to 100 people may die during any outbreak of an emerging infectious disease.

Once Covid emerged in China, MPs said the UK policy was to take a “gradual and incremental approach” to interventions such as social distancing, isolation and lockdowns.

In their study, 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.

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt (PA Wire)
Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt (PA Wire)

The MPs said 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”.

On the issue of whether the Government was pursuing a policy of herd immunity, MPs said that while it was not an official government strategy, there was a “policy approach of fatalism about the prospects for Covid in the community”.

Experts and ministers sought to “only moderate the speed of infection” through the population - flattening the curve - rather than seeking to stop its spread altogether.

The report added: “The policy was pursued until March 23 because of the official scientific advice the government received, not in spite of it.”

Even as late as March 12 2020, the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said it was not possible to stop everyone being infected and nor was that a desirable objective.

The following day, members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) also said they were “unanimous that measures seeking to completely suppress spread of Covid-19 will cause a second peak”.

After hearing evidence from people, including the prime minister’s former adviser Dominic Cummings, and former health secretary Matt Hancock, the MPs concluded 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”.

A paper from Imperial College London, presented to Sage, was among models showing that an unmitigated epidemic could result in around 500,000 UK deaths.

MPs concluded it was “astonishing” it took so long for Sage to say a full lockdown was needed and for the government to implement one, adding they thought the evidence showed a lockdown was “inevitable”.

In other criticisms, MPs said the UK also implemented “light-touch border controls” only on countries with high Covid rates, even though 33 per cent of cases during the first wave were introduced from Spain and 29 per cent from France.

They also argued that earlier social distancing and locking down “would have bought much-needed time” for vaccine research to bear fruit, for Covid treatments to be developed and for a proper test and trace system to be set up.

Furthermore, there was a false belief that the public would not accept lockdown, or would only do so for a short period of time.

The lack of testing capacity also meant there was nowhere near enough data on Covid spread, while abandoning community testing on March 12 was regarded by MPs as a “seminal failure”.

Elsewhere, MPs said that thousands of elderly people died in care homes during the first wave of the pandemic, something that showed “social care had a less prominent voice in government during the early stages of the pandemic than did the NHS”.

The decision not to test people discharged from hospitals to care homes early on was a failure and led to deaths, they added.

Tory MPs Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt, who chair the committees, said in a joint statement: “The UK response has combined some big achievements with some big mistakes. It is vital to learn from both to ensure that we perform as best as we possibly can during the remainder of the pandemic and in the future.”

The report also pointed to the regional tier system as being confusing for the public, adding that it was not “watertight” enough to prevent infection spreading.

Elsewhere, scientific evidence for some measures was lacking, such as the imposition from September 2020 of a 10pm curfew on pubs, or the banning of outdoor children’s sports clubs, MPs said.

Regarding the second lockdown, MPs said that had more stringent social distancing measures been adopted during the autumn, they could have “reduced the seeding of the Alpha variant across the country, slowed its spread and therefore have saved lives”.

However, MPs also noted it was true that the Alpha variant only became known about in December 2020.

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said of the report: “This is a damning report by a cross-party group of MPs into the monumental errors made by ministers in responding to the pandemic.”

A government spokesperson said: “Throughout the pandemic we have been guided by scientific and medical experts and we never shied away from taking quick and decisive action to save lives and protect our NHS, including introducing restrictions and lockdowns.

“Thanks to a collective national effort, we avoided NHS services becoming overwhelmed and our phenomenal vaccination programme has built a wall of defence, with over 24.3 million infections prevented and more than 130,000 lives saved so far.

“As the prime minister has said, we are committed to learning lessons from the pandemic and have committed to holding a full public inquiry in spring.”

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