The government squandered its early lead in the pandemic, converting it into one of permanent crisis, according to a new report from MPs
"It would appear that Sage, Cobra, Public Health England and other bodies repeatedly dismissed the precautionary principle in favour of not taking decisive action until definitive evidence emerged and could be signed off as the truth." Trish Greenhalgh, professor of primary health care at the University of Oxford
The UK’s handling of the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic was one of the “most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced,” a report by MPs has found.
“Coronavirus: lessons learned to date,” a joint report from the Commons science and technology committee and the health and social care committee, says that the “fatalistic” approach of both ministers and scientists exacerbated the death toll.
The report draws on testimony from more than 50 witnesses, including the former health secretary Matt Hancock, the government’s chief scientific and medical advisers, and individuals involved in the vaccine taskforce and NHS Test and Trace.
Although the UK was one of the first countries to develop a test for Covid in January 2020, it “squandered” its lead, and “converted it into one of permanent crisis,” the report says.
The decision to stop community testing early in the pandemic was a “serious mistake,” it finds. “A country with a world-class expertise in data analysis should not have faced the biggest health crisis in a hundred years with virtually no data to analyse. This problem was compounded by a failure of national public bodies involved in the response to share such data as was available with each other, including between national and local government.”
The prime minister’s decision to delay ordering a complete lockdown until 23 March 2020 comes in for particular criticism: “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.”
Another problem in the early days was that the response was “too narrowly and inflexibly based on a flu model which failed to learn the lessons from SARS, MERS and Ebola”. As a result, although the UK’s pandemic planning had been globally acclaimed, it performed less well than other countries at the point when it was needed.
The report is highly critical of the government’s failure to recognise the “significant risks” to the social care sector. It notes that the “lack of priority attached to social care during the initial phase of the pandemic was illustrative of a longstanding failure to afford social care the same attention as the NHS. The rapid discharge of people from hospitals into care homes without adequate testing or rigorous isolation was indicative of the disparity.”
The report does have praise for some aspects of the handling of the pandemic. It says that it was a “remarkable achievement for the NHS to expand ventilator and intensive care capacity, including through the establishment of Nightingale hospitals and the ventilator challenge.” The majority of Covid-19 patients with a clinical need for hospital care received it, it notes. However, it adds that “the price paid to deliver this was significant interruption to NHS core services including in areas like cancer which are time critical.”
The vaccination programme too has been “one of the most effective initiatives in the history of UK science and public administration… Millions of lives will ultimately be saved as a result of the global vaccine effort in which the UK has played a leading part.”
Trish Greenhalgh, professor of primary health care at the University of Oxford said: “It would appear that Sage, Cobra, Public Health England and other bodies repeatedly dismissed the precautionary principle in favour of not taking decisive action until definitive evidence emerged and could be signed off as the truth.”