UK experts call for coronavirus inquiry to prevent deadly second wave

Rowena Mason Deputy political editor
Photograph: Victoria Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Leading medics and scientists have called on Boris Johnson to order a public inquiry to prepare Britain for a second wave of the coronavirus this winter, warning that many more will die unless the country improves its response.

The 27 experts, of which more than half are professors in virology, public health, epidemiology and other relevant fields, said there was an urgent need to fix shortcomings in Westminster’s coronavirus response, which have contributed to the UK suffering one of the highest death rates in the world.

Signatories of a letter to the Guardian include Prof Anthony Costello, a former World Health Organization director and a global health expert at University College London; Prof Trisha Greenhalgh, a primary care expert at the University of Oxford, Prof Deenan Pillay, a former member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies and an expert in virology at UCL; and Prof Devi Sridhar, the chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh.

In the letter, they wrote that it “seems probable” that there will be a second wave of coronavirus this winter in which “many more will die unless we find quick, practical solutions to some of the structural problems that have made implementing an effective response so difficult”.

They said the death rate in the UK has been high despite “strenuous efforts by health professionals and scientists inside and outside government … with the poor and certain minority ethnic groups affected especially badly”. 

The experts listed the problems that need addressing as “the fragmentation of the NHS, public health and social care in England; the failure of those in Westminster to engage with local government and devolved nations; the channels by which scientific evidence feeds into policy; and an inability to plan for the necessary goods and services and procure them. 

“We call on all political parties to commit to a rapid, transparent, expert inquiry to address these issues,” they wrote. “This must avoid diverting the efforts of those responding to the crisis or apportioning blame but should propose feasible ways to overcome the obstacles faced by those on the front line of the response and help them to save lives.”

Related: Covid inquiry vital before second wave | Letter

Other signatories include professors Helen Ward, Karl Friston, Mark Gilthorpe, Ruth Gilbert, Sir Ian Gilmore, Raj Bhopal, Nuala McGrath, Susan Michie and David McCoyall checked. The editors of two leading medical publications have also signed – Fiona Godlee of the British Medical Journal and Richard Horton of the Lancet.

Johnson’s government has not yet committed to a public inquiry into the coronavirus response, but some ministers have conceded there will be a time for “lessons to be learned” after the crisis is over.

However, the experts in their letter made clear that they believe such an exercise is necessary now, so that the response can be improved if the virus resurges later this year.

Many of the signatories have been high-profile critics of the government’s response so far, which some public health professionals in particular believe has failed to draw sufficiently on their expertise.

Johnson insisted this week that he was “very proud” of the government’s record on reducing the spread of the virus, but the death toll has now topped 50,000 – more than twice the total that his chief scientific adviser said would be a “good result”.

The government’s difficulties have been compounded by a revolt among Johnson’s own Tory MPs over the new policy of a 14-day quarantine for inbound travellers, which they argue will destroy the aviation industry and prevent foreign holidays for Brits.

Many backbench Conservative MPs are already restive over Johnson’s backing for his senior aide, Dominic Cummings, over his breaches of the lockdown, which prompted a deluge of mail from angry constituents.

Their discontent was then compounded this week when No 10 insisted that the virtual parliament must be scrapped and MPs return to work as normal, with socially distanced queues snaking around the Palace of Westminster estate and MPs who are shielding initially denied the right to participate. They will now be allowed to vote by proxy.

The government is also under pressure over its contact tracing operation, which one executive suggested would not be fully “world-beating” until the autumn, and the non-appearance of its tracing app, which was promised by June.

There is further uneasiness among scientists and the public about the speed at which the government is unwinding the lockdown in England while the infection threat level remains at 4 – meaning cases of the virus are still high or rising exponentially. Many parents and teachers have raised concerns about children returning to school in England from this week, and non-essential shops are supposed to be opening from 15 June.

To facilitate this greater return to work, Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, unveiled a further U-turn on face masks, saying coverings will be mandatory on public transport in England from 15 June to coincide with shops reopening. At the beginning of the epidemic, the government had insisted that face masks provided very little benefit and did not encourage their use.