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UK government COVID response “one of UK’s worst ever public health failures”, inquiry finds

Published on 12/10/21 at 09:06am

A 150-page report published on Tuesday by the House of Commons, Science and Technology Committee, and Health and Social Care Committee, has concluded that the crisis exposed “major deficiencies in the machinery of government”.

“Groupthink”, evidence of British exceptionalism and a deliberately “slow and gradualist” approach meant the UK fared “significantly worse” than other countries, according to the report, titled: “Coronavirus: lessons learned to date”.

The report contains 38 recommendations to the government and public bodies, and draws on evidence from over 50 witnesses – including Matt Hancock, Professor Chris Whitty, Patrick Vallance, Simon Stevens, Kate Bingham, and Dominic Cummings – as well as over 400 written submissions.

The report was agreed unanimously by members of both Select Committees, which consist of 22 MPs from three political parties – Conservative, Labour, and SNP.

The joint inquiry, which began in October 2020, examined six key areas of the response to COVID-19:

  • the country's preparedness for a pandemic
  • the use of non-pharmaceutical interventions such as border controls, social distancing and lockdowns to control the pandemic
  • the use of test, trace and isolate strategies; the impact of the pandemic on social care
  • the impact of the pandemic on specific communities
  • the procurement and roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines

Despite being one of the first countries to develop a test for COVID in January 2020, the UK “squandered” its lead and “converted it into one of permanent crisis”. The consequences were profound, the report says.

“For a country with a world-class expertise in data analysis, to face the biggest health crisis in 100 years with virtually no data to analyse was an almost unimaginable setback.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson did not order a complete lockdown until 23 March 2020, two months after the government’s Sage committee of scientific advisers first met to discuss the crisis.

The report said: “This slow and gradualist approach was not inadvertent, nor did it reflect bureaucratic delay or disagreement between ministers and their advisers. It was a deliberate policy – proposed by official scientific advisers and adopted by the governments of all of the nations of the UK.

“It is now clear that this was the wrong policy, and that it led to a higher initial death toll than would have resulted from a more emphatic early policy. In a pandemic spreading rapidly and exponentially, every week counted.”

The report also questions why international experts were not part of the UK scientific advisory process and why measures that worked in other countries were not brought in as a precaution, as a response was decided upon.

When the test, trace and isolate system was rolled out, the report called it “slow, uncertain and often chaotic”, saying it “ultimately failed in its stated objective to prevent future lockdowns”, and “severely hampered the UK’s response to the pandemic”.

The problem was compounded, the report adds, by the failure of public bodies to share data, including between national and local government.

Further criticism is levelled at poor protection in care homes, for black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, and for people with learning disabilities.

However, the report does offer some praise to the government, particularly around the development of vaccines and the vaccine roll-out.

Jeremy Hunt, Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, and Greg Clark, Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, said: "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.

“Our vaccine programme was boldly planned and effectively executed. Our test and trace programme took too long to become effective. The Government took seriously scientific advice but there should have been more challenge from all to the early UK consensus that delayed a more comprehensive lockdown when countries like South Korea showed a different approach was possible.

“In responding to an emergency, when much is unknown, it is impossible to get everything right.”

Kat Jenkins

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