The government waited too long to enforce a lockdown in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, missing a chance to control the disease, leading to thousands of unnecessary deaths, a parliamentary report has concluded.
In a critical assessment, a cross-party group of British MPs found government pandemic planning was too focused on flu. The joint investigation published today (Tuesday October 12) by the House of Commons’ science and health committees is lawmakers’ first assessment into why the United Kingdom saw cases rise steeply with deaths far outnumbering many similar countries.
The number of deaths associated with the coronavirus in the U.K. are believed to exceed 140,000, placing the UK in the Top 10 worldwide for total fatalities, according to World Health Organization data.
The cross-party group also stated that the government failed to develop an effective test-and-trace system, which could have helped curtail the spread of the virus and followed a policy of what essentially amounted to “herd immunity”. “Vast sums of taxpayers’ money were directed to Test and Trace, justified by the benefits of avoiding further lockdowns. But ultimately those lockdowns happened,” the report added.
The report also criticised the government’s policies on social care. The decision to return elderly patients to care homes without testing them for the coronavirus led to a rise of cases among the most vulnerable people in the population as well as decision making in relation to ethnic minorities and people with disabilities.
The report also pointed to what it said were significant mistakes in social care, from a lack of scientific advice at the beginning of the outbreak, to a failure to prioritize PPE for care staff, to the swift discharge of patients from hospitals back into care homes, without proper testing.
The report said the government had failed to learn the lessons from the prior Sars, Mers and Ebola outbreaks, calling it “one of the most important public health failures” in the country’s history. The report noted that while some initiatives were examples of global best practices, others exemplified serious mistakes.
The report did however praise the “remarkable” achievement of the National Health Service in expanding ventilator and intensive care capacity and emphasizes the success of the Vaccines Task Force in quickly delivering life-saving vaccines, which were rolled out at speed. The country’s clinical trials testing for COVID-19 treatments have also been “world-leading,” it said.
However, delaying crucial action to impose a stay-at-home order “reflected a fatalism about the spread of COVID that should have been robustly challenged at the time,” the committees said.
In “accepting that herd immunity by infection was the inevitable outcome,” the report said the UK made a “serious early error in adopting this fatalistic approach” and not considering a rigorous targeted public health approach to stop the spread of the virus, as adopted by many East and Southeast Asian countries.
“The U.K. response has combined some big achievements with some big mistakes,” said health committee Chair Jeremy Hunt and science committee Chair Greg Clark in a statement. “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.”
The 150-page report is based on evidence from more than 50 individuals, including England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, former Health Secretary Matt Hancock, former No. 10 adviser Dominic Cummings and Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance
When the national government suspended routine, symptomatic COVID testing of members of the public early in the pandemic, it cut short its ability to analyze the epidemiology of the virus and its wealth of data experts had no data to interrogate, leaving the ship rudderless.
Combined, these led to “many thousands of deaths which could have been avoided,” lawmakers said.
The report contained 38 recommendations for the government, from the U.K. coordinating international resilience planning, including reform of the World Health Organization; to allowing immediate data flows between relevant bodies; to giving the Armed Forces a more central role.
Separately, the government has also committed to launching a full public inquiry into the mistakes made in its handling of the pandemic; the evidence gathered by the committees will be available to that inquiry.
Responding to a joint report, Cllr David Fothergill, Chairman of the Local Government Association’s Community Wellbeing Board, said: “Councils have been leading their communities through the pandemic and as this report makes clear, could have been given a greater role in the initial response to COVID-19.
“Directors of Public Health and their teams, working in councils, know their areas best and were eventually able to complement the national test and trace system by setting up their own local contact tracing partnerships and successfully tracing many hard-to-reach cases.
“Social care was already under severe pressure prior to the pandemic, which exposed and exacerbated some fundamental weaknesses, including workforce shortages and a lack of funding.
“Coronavirus will be with us for some time to come and challenges remain, including the need for greater data sharing with councils to help them deal with localised outbreaks, alongside the necessary resources and personnel.
“The Spending Review is an opportunity to address the health inequalities exposed by the pandemic which are preventing us from levelling up the country, by investing in councils’ public health services and injecting genuinely new funding into adult social care to tackle immediate pressures, if we are to build back better from the pandemic.”
Former chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies told the inquiry there had been “groupthink”, with infectious disease experts not believing that “Sars, or another Sars, would get from Asia to us”. She likened it to a “form of British exceptionalism”.
Labour said the report reinforced the immediate need for a public inquiry “so mistakes of such tragic magnitude are never repeated again”, while its authors said it was “vital” that lessons were learnt from the failings of the past 18 months.