A British parliamentary report published Tuesday said that the government’s delay in locking down society when Covid-19 hit last year had cost lives and was “one of the most important public health failures” in the country’s history.
In a damning assessment, a cross-party group of MPs found that official pandemic planning was too focused on influenza and had failed to learn the lessons from prior outbreaks of SARS, MERS and Ebola.
The 151-page study, published by two parliamentary watchdog committees after months of hearings, comes ahead of an independent public inquiry into the government’s coronavirus handling due to begin next year.
Britain has been hit hard by the crisis, with nearly 138,000 Covid-19 deaths – one of the highest tolls in Europe – since March last year, raising questions about why it has fared worse than many other nations.
The MPs said the government had waited too long to push through lockdown measures in early 2020.
Leading advisors had pushed a “deliberate policy” to take a “gradual and incremental approach” to interventions such as social distancing, isolation and lockdowns, said the report.
That approach had been proved “wrong” and led to a higher death toll, the lawmakers said, adding that the failure to test elderly people discharged from hospitals into care homes early on also led to deaths.
“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,” they wrote.
There was a “policy approach of fatalism about the prospects for Covid in the community”, which contributed to the failures.
Britain had also been too slow to introduce the isolation of infected people, and mistakenly implemented “light-touch border controls” only on countries with high Covid rates when most cases were coming from France and Spain.
Government planning for a pandemic was too “narrowly and inflexibly based on a flu model”, while ministers and scientific advisers were accused of “groupthink” by some experts, according to the report.
Conservative MP Jeremy Hunt, a former health secretary who chairs one of the report committees, said the government had also failed to absorb the early experience of South Korea and Taiwan, which were quick to introduce mass test and trace systems.
East Asian countries with direct experience of SARS and MERS responded best in the first half of the pandemic, Hunt told BBC radio.
“We were always running to catch up,” he said likening the response to a football match “with two very different halves”, pointing to the rapid launch of a successful mass vaccination campaign against Covid in December.
Lessons to learn
The panel took evidence from a range of figures, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s controversial former chief adviser Dominic Cummings, who assailed his ex-boss’s handling of the crisis.
Johnson has also faced criticism over his refusal to start the public inquiry sooner.
The British leader announced in May that the probe would go ahead and examine his government’s actions “as rigorously and as candidly as possible and to learn every lesson for the future”.
But he has refused to allow it to begin before spring next year, arguing the inquiry could hamper the country’s ongoing pandemic response.
Responding to the new report, government minister Steve Barclay noted the MPs’ praise of Britain’s vaccination rollout.
“But of course if there are lessons to learn, we are keen to do so,” he told Sky News, refusing to apologise and insisting the government had followed prevailing scientific advice.
“I think there was rigorous debate within government with science, but of course it was unprecedented, so it was a developing picture for the scientists themselves.”