The British government waited too long to impose a lockdown in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, missing a chance to contain the disease and leading to thousands of unnecessary deaths, a parliamentary report has concluded. The 150-page report is based on testimony from 50 witnesses, including former Matt Hancock and Dominic Cummings It was unanimously approved by 22 MPs from the three largest parties.
It is this unanimity that makes this report so powerful. Cut away the bluster, the evasions, the lies and rambling from Johnson & Co and this report makes clear that tens of thousands of people died because of Tory Government incompetence. It could have been worse. The Government was full of reason and light compared to the Tory back benchers in the Covid Research Group who wanted things to carry on and let the virus work its way through the population.
The report makes clear that the deadly delay resulted from ministers’ failure to question the recommendations of scientific advisers, resulting in a dangerous level of “groupthink” that caused them to dismiss the more aggressive strategies adopted in East and Southeast Asia, according to the joint report from the House of Commons’ science and health committees.
Government thinking only changed when it became clear that the NHS was being overwhelmed and that people were starting to die in appreciable numbers particularly the elderly, those with pre-existing conditions and those from ethnic minority Groups
The desire to avoid a lockdown because of the harm it would cause to the economy, normal health services and society is absolutely understandable but was taken far too far and decisions were taken far too late.
In the absence of other strategies such as rigorous case isolation which was at least a week late in being introduced and a meaningful test-and-trace operation which never came a full lockdown was inevitable and should have come sooner.
The Report comes amid growing frustration with the timetable for a formal public inquiry into the government’s response to COVID. PM Johnson claims that this will start next spring but there is a lot of scepticism about when it will start and what the Government will do with the findings and recommendations.
In 2017 the Government a major pandemic planning exercise which made all sorts of recommendations about the soring of equipment and supplied. These recommendations were totally ignored. This was, of course, a major reason for the 40,000 deaths of the elderly in care homes.
MPs said their inquiry was designed to uncover why Britain performed “significantly worse” than many other countries during the early days of the pandemic so that the U.K. could improve its response to the ongoing threat from COVID-19 and prepare for future threats.
Not everything was done wrong. The early focus on vaccines as the ultimate way out of the pandemic and the decision to invest in vaccine development helped reduced deaths and serious illness in the middle months of this year. Britain’s successful inoculation program, which has now seen almost 80% of people 12 and over now fully vaccinated.
The joint committee also criticised the government’s test-and-trace program, saying its slow, uncertain and often chaotic performance hampered Britain’s response to the pandemic. We spent more than £38 billion with thousands of staff being paid to do nothing for months on end. The test and trace system was only saved by the heroic efforts of public health staff a d the Councils for whom they work.
The government’s strategy during the first three months of the crisis reflected official scientific advice that widespread infection was inevitable given that testing capacity was limited; that there was no immediate prospect for a vaccine; and the belief that the public wouldn’t accept a lengthy lockdown, the report said. As a result, the government sought merely to manage the spread of the virus, instead of trying to stop it altogether.
The report described this as a “serious early error” that the U.K. shared with many countries in Europe and North America.
The report highlighted a failure of the scientific community to be able to take decisions in the round. As with many academics the main recommendation of one report is always to do more research for another report. There is a clear failure of the scientific community to be decisive and to pursue quick action, preferring instead to seek a certainty for an approach which can be worse than a wrong reaction enthusiastically followed through.
In my view senior politicians seemed unable to balance good scientific advice with good social and economic advice. As the report says, “accountability in a democracy depends on elected decision-makers not just taking advice, but examining, questioning and challenging it before making their own decisions,” the committees said. “Although it was a rapidly changing situation, given the large number of deaths predicted, it was surprising the initially fatalistic assumptions about the impossibility of suppressing the virus were not challenged until it became clear the NHS would be overwhelmed.”
But the situation broke down further when Cummings went to Barnard Castle, and the PM failed to take action against him. From this point the hard line taken by most members of the public to support self-isolation; to wear masks and to socially isolate began to break down.
As we look to the future, I believe that we need more than this report to guide us to a logical and clear way forward. This has been the worst pandemic in more than a Century. It is not over yet and like influenzas may never really be over. In particular, there will be continuing mental health issues caused by covid experiences and physical health issues caused by long-Covid and the weakening of some people’s vital organs.
This report raises a series of questions that were considered by a pandemic exercise in 2017 but the answers to which and consequent recommendations were never implemented.
What equipment and supplies should we store and replenish regularly? What is the relationship that needs to be created between science and political decision making? What is the balance between local political decision making and national political decision making? What is the relationship between all those national, regional and local command centres? Are the same organisations round the table at each level and who takes leadership at which stage?
Unless we consider these matters carefully while events are still fresh in our minds there WILL be another pandemic and tens of thousands more lives will be needlessly lost.