The government’s inability to lock down society when Covid-19 struck last year, according to a British parliamentary study released Tuesday, killed lives and was “one of the most important public health failures” in the country’s history.
A cross-party panel of MPs found that government pandemic planning was overly focused on influenza and had failed to absorb lessons from previous outbreaks of SARS, MERS, and Ebola, according to a damning report.
The 151-page report, released after months of hearings by two parliamentary watchdog committees, comes ahead of an independent public inquiry of the government’s handling of the coronavirus, which is set to begin next year.
Since March last year, Britain has been heavily impacted by the epidemic, with approximately 138,000 Covid-19 deaths (one of the worst tolls in Europe), raising questions about why it has fared worse than many other countries.
The MPs claimed that the administration waited too long to implement lockdown measures in early 2020.
According to the study, top advisers advocated for a “planned policy” to take a “gradual and incremental approach” to treatments including social distancing, seclusion, and lockdowns.
The MPs claimed the method was “wrong” and resulted in a greater death toll, and that failure to evaluate elderly persons discharged from hospitals into care homes early on also resulted in deaths.
“During the early weeks of the pandemic, decisions on lockdowns and social separation — and the recommendations that led to them — rank as one of the most significant public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced,” they said.
The problems were exacerbated by a “policy approach of fatalism about Covid’s chances in the community.”
Britain had also been sluggish to establish infected-person isolation, and had applied “light-touch border controls” solely to nations with high Covid rates, when the majority of cases were coming from France and Spain.
According to the report, government planning for a pandemic was too “narrowly and inflexibly based on a flu model,” and several experts accused politicians and scientific advisers of “groupthink.”
Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, a Conservative MP who leads one of the report committees, said the government had also failed to learn from South Korea’s and Taiwan’s early experiences with mass test and trace systems.
Hunt told BBC radio that East Asian countries who had firsthand experience with SARS and MERS responded well in the early half of the pandemic.
“We were continuously catching up,” he said, comparing the response to a football game “with two very different halves,” referring to the successful beginning of a large immunization campaign against Covid in December.
Lessons to learn
The panel heard from a number of people, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s controversial former chief adviser Dominic Cummings, who criticized his former boss’s handling of the situation.
Johnson has also been chastised for delaying the commencement of the public inquiry.
In May, the British prime minister declared that the investigation will continue, examining his government’s conduct “as carefully and transparently as possible and learning every lesson for the future.”
He has, however, refused to allow it to begin before the spring of next year, claiming that it would jeopardize the country’s ongoing pandemic response.
In response to the new findings, government minister Steve Barclay praised the UK’s vaccination program.
“But, of course, if there are lessons to be learned, we are eager to do so,” he said on Sky News, refusing to apologise and asserting that the government had acted in accordance with scientific advice.
“I believe there was a thorough debate about science within government, but it was unprecedented, so it was an emerging picture for the scientists themselves.”