Minister says there were ‘many things’ Government did not get right in pandemic

A health minister said there are “many things” the Government did not get right during the coronavirus pandemic, highlighting the controversial procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) and the test and trace system.

But while acknowledging there were “lessons to learn” from the Covid-19 crisis, Lord Markham also pointed to successes such as the vaccine rollout and stressed the need for “balance”.

There has been strong criticism of the Government over the handling of PPE contracts, which cost billions of pounds, and the quality of many items provided.

It is one of the areas set to be examined by the coronavirus inquiry led by Baroness Heather Hallett.

Raising the issue during a question on the readiness of the UK to deal with any future pandemic, the Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Rev James Newcome, said: “Can the minister tell us whether the Government have yet put in place a revised system to purchase PPE during a pandemic?”

Lord Markham said: “PPE is an example of where we all agree that we could have done better, to say the least.”

He added: “Yes, we can learn a lot about PPE. At the same time, we did buy 35 billion items, 97% of which worked very well. It is important that we keep all this in context. We got 97% of things right.”

Liberal Democrat Lord Allan of Hallam said: “For many people, the most effective tools for contact tracing during the pandemic were messaging services such as WhatsApp as family and friends kept each other informed about test results and infections.

“But you were often left in the absurd position of someone calling from the official track and trace system about a contact who had let you know about their infection several days earlier, including, sometimes, people who lived in your own home.

“Can the minister assure the House that the Government’s plans for future pandemics will look at how best to work with these local, informal, peer-to-peer networks rather than think that the solution always lies in centralised, expensive systems?”

Lord Markham said: “I agree. There are many examples of where centrally run initiatives did not work so well, test and trace being one. That is what the inquiry is all about.

“There are many examples of things that worked very well, such as our vaccine preparation and our creating the first test for Covid, through the PCR process. There are many lessons to learn, including from many of these centrally run initiatives.”

The minister told peers: “There were many things that we did not get right. The whole reason that we set up the UK Health Security Agency was because we were not happy with the response in some areas.

“That agency was set up with a team of experts to make sure that, learning from those lessons, we are properly prepared for all eventualities next time around.

“There are lessons to learn but, as the Covid inquiry will show, there were also many things that we did right. It is important that we have that balance.”