Govt's 'catastrophic' Covid response biggest public health failure in history - report

12 October 2021, 00:05 | Updated: 12 October 2021, 00:50

MPs have concluded that a number of failings, including a 'chaotic' test and trace system and delays to lockdowns, resulted in more deaths
MPs have concluded that a number of failings, including a "chaotic" test and trace system and delays to lockdowns, resulted in more deaths. Picture: Alamy

By Daisy Stephens

Serious errors and delays at the hands of the Government and scientific advisers cost lives during the Covid-19 pandemic and amount to one of the biggest public health failures in history, according to a damning report from MPs.

The study, from the cross-party Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee, said the country was not prepared, ministers took too long to introduce lockdowns, border controls were not strict enough and the test and trace system was "chaotic".

The MPs said that lives would have been saved had the UK had a pandemic preparation plan that was not so focussed on flu, and had made key decisions earlier.

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The report said that lessons were not learnt from Sars, Mers and Ebola, which led to ministers failing to recognise the severity of the novel coronavirus when it first emerged, with former chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies saying infectious disease experts did not believe "Sars, or another Sars, would get from Asia to us".

The UK's national risk register, which was in place at the start of the pandemic, said "the likelihood of an emerging infectious disease spreading within the UK is assessed to be lower than that of a pandemic flu".

It also said only up to 100 people may die during any outbreak of an emerging infectious disease.

Once Covid-19 began to spread in China, MPs said the UK policy was to take a "gradual and incremental approach" to interventions such as social distancing, isolation and lockdowns.

In their study, they 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".

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On the issue of whether the Government was pursuing a policy of herd immunity, MPs said it was not an official Government strategy but that there was a "policy approach of fatalism about the prospects for Covid in the community" - suggesting they believed herd immunity was inevitable and unavoidable.

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."

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".

A paper from Imperial College London, presented to Sage, was among models showing that an unmitigated epidemic could result in around 500,000 UK deaths, leading to MPs to conclude it was "astonishing" it took Sage so long to say a full lockdown was needed and for the Government to subsequently implement one.

MPs added they thought the evidence showed a lockdown was "inevitable" and noted the delay may have been partly down to a false belief the public would not tolerate it.

After hearing evidence from a number of other people including Boris Johnson's former adviser Dominic Cummings and former health secretary Matt Hancock, MPs also criticised the UK's "light-touch border controls" on countries with high Covid rates, after 62 per cent of Covid cases during the first wave were imported from Spain and France combined.

They criticised the Government and its advisers for failing to realise the role of asymptomatic transmission, and said the lack of testing capacity meant there was nowhere near enough data on the spread of the virus.

They branded the abandonment of community testing on March 12 as a 'seminal failure'.

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On the issue of Covid in care homes, they said the decision not to test people discharged from hospitals into residential care was another failure and lead to more deaths.

They also said that the number of care home deaths during the first wave of the pandemic showed "social care had a less prominent voice in Government during the early stages of the pandemic than did the NHS".

Regarding test and trace, the "slow, uncertain, and often chaotic performance of the test, trace and isolate system severely hampered the UK's response to the pandemic", MPs said.

They also noted "unacceptably high death rates among people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities" and those with learning disabilities.

Across the board, the report criticised a national failure to share data between central and local government, adding that the NHS was squeezed due to shortages of staff.

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They said scientific evidence for some policies was lacking, such as a 10pm curfew for pubs and the banning of outdoor children's sports clubs.

The report also pointed to the regional tier system as being confusing for the public and not being sufficiently "watertight" to prevent the spread of infections.

Had more stringent social distancing measures been adopted during the autumn, MPs said, the "seeding" of the Alpha variant could have been reduced and lives could have been saved.

However MPs did acknowledge that the Alpha variant only became known about in December 2020.

In a joint statement, Tory MPs Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt, who chair the committees, acknowledged it was "impossible to get everything right" and thanked NHS and care home staff, scientists and officials for the "big achievements" in the UK's response, which included the vaccine rollout.

However they said there were "big mistakes" and it was "vital to learn from them".

"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," they said.

"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.

"We record our gratitude to all those - NHS and care workers, scientists, officials in national and local government, workers in our public services and in private businesses and millions of volunteers - who responded to the challenge with dedication, compassion and hard work to help the whole nation at one of our darkest times."

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In response to the report, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: "This is a damning report by a cross-party group of MPs into the monumental errors made by ministers in responding to the pandemic."

A Government spokesman said: "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 NHS, including introducing restrictions and lockdowns.

"Thanks to a collective national effort, we avoided NHS services becoming overwhelmed and our phenomenal vaccination programme has built a wall of defence, with over 24.3 million infections prevented and more than 130,000 lives saved so far.

"As the Prime Minister has said, we are committed to learning lessons from the pandemic and have committed to holding a full public inquiry in spring."