“Deliberate” slow response to pandemic led to higher death toll, report finds

Elliot Chappell
© Twitter/@Keir_Starmer

A cross-party parliamentary report has found that a “deliberate policy” pursued by ministers and government officials to take a “slow and gradualist approach” to Covid early in the pandemic led to a higher initial death toll.

Published this morning, the ‘lessons learned‘ report by the health and science committees criticised resistance early in the health crisis to introduce measures such as lockdowns and social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus.

It condemned the “gradual and incremental approach to introducing non-pharmaceutical interventions” in the early stages of the first wave and the decision not to introduce a lockdown until March 23rd, two months after SAGE first met.

“This slow and gradualist approach was not inadvertent, nor did it reflect bureaucratic delay or disagreement between ministers and their advisers,” the report said.

“It was a deliberate policy – proposed by official scientific advisers and adopted by the governments of all of the nations of the UK. It is now clear that this was the wrong policy, and that it led to a higher initial death toll than would have resulted from a more emphatic early policy.”

Jonathan Ashworth this morning described the findings of the MPs’ investigation as “damning” and the failings identified as “monumental errors made by ministers”, reiterating Labour’s demand for a public inquiry to begin now.

“The reality is that years of cutbacks have left our NHS without the staff and beds needed; personal protective equipment stockpiles had dwindled and the most vulnerable in care homes were left unprotected in the face of a raging, deadly disease. At every step ministers ignored warnings, responded with complacency and were too slow to act,” the Shadow Health Secretary said.

The 150-page paper found that decisions from ministers on lockdowns and social distancing early in the crisis and the advice leading to those decisions “rank as one of the most important public health failures the UK has ever experienced”.

It suggested that the 50,000-strong crowd at a Liverpool FC and Atletico Madrid football match, the day Covid was categorised as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation, and the 250,000 people at Cheltenham festival of racing in early March may have spread the virus.

The report was also highly critical of the performance of test and trace, remarking that throughout the last 18 months “the test and trace system has had labels applied that have been at variance with the reality”.

“Ministers began by promising the test and trace system would be “world-beating” in May 2020 when the truth was that it was that it was a laggard,” it said of the system, which had a £37bn budget.

The committee compared the programme to that of other countries such as South Korea, which rapidly scaled up testing. Public Health England told the committee during its sessions that it had studied and rejected the South Korean approach.

But the report found: “No formal evaluation took place, which amounts to an extraordinary and negligent omission given Korea’s success in containing the pandemic, which was well-publicised at the time. As a result the UK squandered a leading position in diagnostics and converted it into one of permanent crisis.”

The document stated that pandemic preparedness plans had been “focused too closely on influenza” ahead of the pandemic and that tests of response capability “did not squarely address a disease with the characteristics of Covid-19”.

“An over-reliance on pandemic influenza as the most important infectious disease threat clearly had consequences. It meant that the emphasis of detailed preparations was for what turned out to be the wrong type of disease,” it stated.

The paper stated that ministers and the NHS “failed adequately to recognise the significant risks to the social care sector” at the beginning of the crisis. More than 39,000 care home residents died with Covid between April 2020 and March 2021.

It described the impact on the care workforce as “acute”, highlighting that between March and May last year deaths for people working in care were nearly twice the average during the same period from 2014 to 2019 and that 74% of deaths recorded for care workers during the pandemic had Covid as the cause of death.

The then Health Secretary Matt Hancock claimed in May last year that the government had “from the start” thrown a “protective ring” around care homes.

Labour was critical of the government’s decision not to follow SAGE advice on a ‘circuit-break’ lockdown last autumn, with opposition leader Keir Starmer warning that the country would “sleep walk into a long and bleak winter”.

But the report said it was “impossible to know whether a circuit breaker would have had a material effect in preventing a second lockdown”. It cited the experience in Wales, where the a short lockdown was implemented but the devolved nation still instituted a further lockdown.

The report concluded that the UK’s response to the pandemic has been, with the exception of the development and deployment of vaccines, “too reactive as opposed to anticipatory” and that there has been “too little explicit learning from the international experience”.

The authors added that the implementation of some containment measures were “too centralised”, that better engagement with relevant sectors and interest groups was needed and that the response “lacked speed in making timely decisions”.

The scope of the investigation was limited to the experience of the pandemic in England and the UK government response. The committees did not examine the handling of the health crisis in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The investigation, led by Tory MPs Jeremy Hunt and Greg Clark, was launched last year. Boris Johnson announced earlier this year that a full public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic will not begin until spring 2022.

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