Mistakes, delays and failures in UK Covid response cost lives, says report

MPs conclude there was a policy approach of fatalism about the prospects for Covid-19 in the community

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Serious errors and delays by the UK government and its scientific advisers cost lives during the Covid-19 pandemic, a critical report from MPs claims.

The report calls the Covid response in the early days of the outbreak “one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced".

Britain’s pandemic preparation was far too focused on influenza and the delays in lockdown measures led to a higher death toll, found the report, which was released on Tuesday.

Some relatives of those who died called the report “laughable” for praising efforts of the vaccination programme while trying to “ignore and gaslight bereaved families”.

The cross-party report from the science and technology committee and the health and social care committee said the UK's pandemic planning was too “narrowly and inflexibly based on a flu model” and failed to learn lessons from Sars, Mers and Ebola.

The report said the “success of the vaccine programme has redeemed many of the persistent failings of other parts of the national response, such as the test and trace system, so that the outcome is far better than would have been the case without this success".

Decisions on lockdowns during the early weeks of the pandemic rank as one of the most important public health failures the UK has ever experienced

The former chief medical office, Prof Dame Sally Davies, told MPs there was “group think”, with infectious disease experts not believing that “Sars, or another Sars, would get from Asia to us".

Hannah Brady, holding photos of her father, Shaun Brady, and grandmother Margaret Brady, who she lost to coronavirus. PA

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

In their study, the MPs 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.

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".

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".

MPs concluded it was 'astonishing' that it took so long to implement a full lockdown. AFP

A paper from Imperial College London, presented to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, was among models showing that an unmitigated epidemic could result in about 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.

On the issue of whether the Government was pursuing a policy of herd immunity, which has proved controversial, 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, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, told a Government press conference that 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”.

In other criticisms in the 151-page report, 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.

The UK response has combined some big achievements with some big mistakes
Tory MPs Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt

They said the “early weeks of the pandemic expose deficiencies in both scientific advice and Government action”, with no real idea of how far the virus had spread and a downplaying of the role of asymptomatic transmission.

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 MP Jeremy Hunt, who was health secretary from 2012 to 2018 and now chairs the Health and Social Care Committee, has admitted he was part of the “groupthink” that focused too much on flu and failed to adequately plan for a pandemic.

He told ITV's Good Morning Britain: “We say this was like a football match with two very different halves, and yes there were those very serious errors that… led to many tragedies.

“But in the second half of the match, we have the vaccine programme which was, we say, the most effective initiative in the history of British science and public administration, we had the discovery of treatments like dexamethasone in the UK which saved a million lives worldwide, we had that extraordinary response in the NHS which saw everyone who needed a ventilator and an intensive care bed, got one.”

In a joint statement, Tory MPs Greg Clark and Mr Hunt, who chair the committees, 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."

Hannah Brady, spokeswoman for the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, criticised the report authors for failing to speak to relatives of people who died from Covid.

“What a surprise: a committee led by the previous health secretary and which exclusively spoke to his friends in government, found that the deaths of 150,000 people were 'redeemed' by the vaccine roll-out," Ms Brady said.

“The report is 122 pages long, but manages to barely mention the over 150,000 bereaved families.

“Sadly, this is what we expected, as the committee explicitly refused to speak to us or any bereaved families, instead insisting they were only interested in speaking to their colleagues and friends.

“The report it's produced is laughable, and more interested in political arguments about whether you can bring laptops to Cobra meetings than it is in the experiences of those who tragically lost parents, partners or children to Covid-19.

“This is an attempt to ignore and gaslight bereaved families, who will see it as a slap in the face.”

Ms Brady said the report proved that a judge-led independent inquiry, which has been promised by the government in spring, “must have bereaved families at its heart".

Updated: October 12, 2021, 7:27 AM