MPs have concluded from a report compiled by the Health and Social Care committee and the Science and Technology committee that the UK’s response to preventing COVID-19 from spreading during the early stages of the pandemic, including delays in lockdown and failures in testing, contributed to one of the worst public health failures witnessed in the country.
The report focused on six key areas – pandemic preparedness, lockdowns and social distancing, testing and contact tracing, social care, at-risk communities and vaccines.
The initial approach used by the government, which was backed by its scientists, attempted to manage the situation by using the possible technique of ‘herd immunity by infection’, the report said. This strategy of herd immunity was criticised with the report also stating there was “a degree of groupthink” among government ministers and the scientific advisors from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).
“Our criticism is there wasn’t enough challenge to the official scientific advice. It’s not to say there was anything deficient about the scientists concerned,” said the chair of the Science and Technology Committee, Greg Clark. Despite backing the UK chief scientific advisor, Patrick Vallance and England’s chief medical office Chris Whitty, affirming that they worked with integrity, Clark believes that the UK should have looked at how other nations such as Taiwan and South Korea responded in the early stages, and confronted the method adopted in the UK.
This method meant that lockdown was delayed, costing the lives of thousands of Britons.
The 150 page-long report which predominantly focused on the responses in England, stated that the government was incorrect to delay the first lockdown and made a “serious early error” by adopting a “fatalist approach”.
Other failings the report highlighted included the “serious mistake” of preventing community testing in March 2020, the “often chaotic” test-and-trace system and the “many thousands” of deaths that could have been averted due to infected people being sent to care homes from hospitals without being tested.
MPs have stated that the pandemic has been the “biggest peacetime challenge” for 100 years.
The absence of data collection, the dependency on models and the idea that people would not adhere to rules have been listed as possible explanations for the failure, declares the report.
The government consistently affirmed that they would “follow the science” when making decisions, and MPs agree they did until September 2020 where ministers in England rejected scientific advice from SAGE, recommending a two-week “circuit-break” lockdown.
The NHS were also questioned within the report regarding their preparedness as although the health service responded, “quickly and strongly”, it stated that there was “little spare capacity” available to cope with the extremely high demands. Due to this, one of the recommendations from the report had was to ensure that the NHS has “surge capacity”, which the MPs declare that it does not have enough of.
However, the report also highlights successes, as it hailed the COVID-19 vaccination programme, calling it one of the “most effective initiatives in UK history”.
“The success of the vaccine programme—one of the most effective in Europe and, for a country of our size one of the most effective in the world—shows that positive as well as negative lessons should be taken from our handling of the pandemic,” the report said.
Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt, both Conservative MPs and members of the committee, said that it was “impossible to get everything right”.
“The UK has combined some big achievements with some big mistakes. It is vital to learn from both”.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council leader, said: “The report gives well-deserved praise to the development and deployment of one of the most successful vaccine programmes in history, which was delivered largely by the hard work and dedication of doctors and healthcare staff.”
However, continued to say that it “also reveals the significance of the failures from the very start of the pandemic”.
Robert West at University College London said the report’s “damning conclusion” on the issues of test and trace and the delaying of restrictions caused thousands of deaths.
“In some countries, this report would lead to resignations,” he declared in a statement.
GP and professor at the University of Oxford, Trisha Greenhalgh states says: “I think it’s a ‘warts and all’ report. They’re [the MPs] being quite brave there,” she affirms, saying that a faster reaction should have occurred as a precautionary nature instead of waiting for the scientists to provide them with the answers.
“The essential nature of a crisis is uncertainty, that’s inherent. The whole idea you can commission a bunch of scientists to find the facts, wait for the facts, and then make a policy decision, is a bit naive.”