The UK government was wrong to wait so long to implement a lockdown at the start of the covid-19 pandemic and made a “serious early error” by adopting a “fatalistic approach” to how much it could slow the spread of the coronavirus, members of parliament (MPs) say in a report published today.
Other failings highlighted by the report include the “serious mistake” of stopping community testing in March 2020, an “often chaotic” test-and-trace system and “many thousands” of deaths that could have been avoided because people who had tested positive were sent from hospitals to care homes.
The UK was also too narrowly prepared for a flu-like pandemic, according to the joint report by the 22 MPs on the Health and Social Care Committee and the Science and Technology Committee. The analysis is the most authoritative view on the government’s handling of the crisis to date, with a public inquiry not due to start until next year.
“It was a bit like Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities: the best of times and the worst of times, the best of policy and the worst of policy,” says Greg Clark, chair of the Science and Technology Committee. “You had the brilliance of the vaccine roll-out, scientifically and administratively. But then you had real failures such as the lack of testing, the lack of data.”
The vaccine programme and test and trace schemes were mirror images, in his view. UK prime minister Boris Johnson promised the latter would be “world-beating”, but it was hamstrung by inadequate capacity at the outset due a lack of investment in public health for several years, says Clark. He says the system “seemed to stumble from crisis to crisis”, was too centralised and failed to anticipate even predictable problems such as a spike in demand for tests in September 2020 as children returned to schools.
The MPs were highly critical of the government’s response at the start of the pandemic, when Johnson appeared to pursue a strategy of “herd immunity”, before a rethink in mid-March 2020 led to a lockdown. The report concludes there was “a degree of groupthink” among government officials and its science advisers, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).
“Our criticism is there wasn’t enough challenge to the official scientific advice. It’s not to say there was anything deficient about the scientists concerned,” says Clark. Indeed, he says UK chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance and England’s chief medical office Chris Whitty acted with integrity throughout. However, he says people in government should have looked at how countries such as South Korea and Taiwan responded much faster, to challenge the UK view of only gradually imposing restrictions.
A lack of data collection, an over-reliance on mathematical models and the misplaced idea that people wouldn’t adhere to rules are the among the possible explanations for that early failure, says the report.
The UK government repeatedly said it would “follow the science” in its handling of covid-19, and the MPs concludes it did until September 2020 – when it ignored SAGE’s advice to implement a “circuit-breaker” lockdown. The committees say that decision is likely to have led to a faster spread of the Kent variant, later named Alpha, in the winter.
Meanwhile, advice to the public was clear at the start of the pandemic but became “increasingly complex and harder to understand” when the first lockdown was lifted in May 2020 and government told people to “stay alert”. By contrast, the MPs hail the vaccine programme as being one of the most effective in the world for a country the size of the UK.
Asked how he views the UK’s response overall, Clark says: “It was a mixed response. I think that was inevitable: you could never expect to get everything right.” However, he says the current situation with most restrictions lifted and many people vaccinated, would have been regarded as a “favourable and optimistic” scenario back in March 2020.
Others take a dimmer view. Robert West at University College London said the report’s “damning conclusion” was that failings on test and trace and the timings of restrictions led to thousands of extra deaths. “In some countries, this report would lead to resignations,” he said in a statement.
Trish Greenhalgh at the University of Oxford says: “I think it’s a ‘warts and all’ report. They’re [the MPs] being quite brave there.” She echoes the report, saying faster action should have been taken by government on a precautionary principle rather than waiting for clearer answers from scientists. “The essential nature of a crisis is uncertainty, that’s inherent. The whole idea you can commission a bunch of scientists to find the facts, wait for the facts, and then make a policy decision, is a bit naive.”
However, she says one significant omission in the report is it doesn’t mention failings around face masks, such as deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries suggesting they could be harmful.
Gabriel Scally at the University of Bristol, UK, says the report was right in its criticism of the early scientific advice that SAGE had given, in part due to an absence of public health experts in early internal discussions. What is missing from the report is a focus on poor health and inequalities that existed before the pandemic, he adds.
Scally also believes the MPs are overly positive about the vaccination roll-out. After being the first country to begin administering doses, in December 2020, only 66 per cent of the UK population are now fully vaccinated, putting the UK behind European peers such as Italy and Spain. “It started early, but we’ve been overtaken by other European countries and our approach to vaccinating children has been shambolic,” he says.
Stephen Griffin at the University of Leeds says one of the shocking elements of the report is the UK’s pre-pandemic efforts focused so much on flu, despite what he says were more “relevant exemplars” similar to covid-19 in South Asian countries.
A government spokesperson says: “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 National Health System, including introducing restrictions and lockdowns.”
The MPs list 38 recommendations to ensure future pandemics are better handled, including having more diverse expertise and views in the make-up of SAGE, and acting faster on a precautionary basis rather than waiting for greater scientific certainty. Clark says one danger is future preparations focus too narrowly now on coronaviruses, rather than the many other types of viruses that could jump from other animals to humans. “I think that is a risk,” he says.
Ensuring officials can anticipate a wide range of threats requires an explicit commitment from the government to properly fund contingency planning, he says. “Because when money is tight, as it always is, and there’s other priorities that governments face, it’s very tempting to raid money or people who seem to be focused on future events with a low likelihood of happening,” says Clark. “But as we see, that really is a good insurance investment.”
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