Thousands of lives were lost due to delays and mistakes made at the start of the COVID pandemic by both ministers and their scientific advisers according to a highly critical report by MPs.
A pandemic plan based too much on influenza and “groupthink” among public health officials meant early opportunities to delay the spread of COVID were missed, even though lockdowns, testing and isolation strategies were working in other countries, the report found.
“We know that some of that scientific advice was wrong, but also that politicians should have challenged that advice,” Jeremy Hunt, chair of the Health Select Committee, told Sky News.
“You can’t just say ‘we’re following the science’ – you have to dig down and ask why scientists are saying what they’re saying. That challenge should have happened earlier.”
The key findings of the report include:
– It was a “serious early error” not to lock down sooner
– The decision to abandon testing for COVID in the community early on was a mistake that “cost many lives”
– Failing to prioritise social care and discharging people from hospitals into care homes “led to many thousands of deaths”
– Robust border controls were needed sooner
– There were “serious deficiencies” in communication within government and between central and local government.
According to MPs, “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”.
With more than 135,000 fatalities, the UK has the second-largest COVID-related death toll in Europe, surpassed only by Russia.
The report is the result of a joint inquiry by the Health and Science Select Committees which began last October and interviewed more than 50 witnesses including former health secretary Matt Hancock, Chief Scientist Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty and former Number 10 adviser Dominic Cummings.
It found that while “herd immunity” was never a policy objective, the idea was pervasive among scientific advisers early on in the outbreak.
This “fatalistic” attitude should have been challenged by officials and helped precipitate other errors.
Likewise, a failure to believe that the British public would accept lockdown helped delay one from being implemented, despite evidence that the NHS was going to be overwhelmed with cases.
But the report also praised key elements of the pandemic response, including the decision to pre-order vaccines even before trials had proved their effectiveness.
MPs also praised the ability of the NHS to absorb the pressures COVID placed on it and the rapid deployment of Nightingale hospitals.
But doctors told Sky News that while the NHS proved it was agile, the impact of the pandemic on frontline services was grave and lasting.
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“The NHS has survived but in a very broken fashion, and the people who will suffer will be the people of the United Kingdom,” Dr Zudin Puthucheary, an ICU consultant and member of the Intensive Care Society, told Sky News.
A government spokesperson said: “Throughout the pandemic we have been guided by the scientific and medical experts and we never shied away from taking quick and decisive action.
“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.”