The British government failed to act quickly enough in its initial Covid-19 response, enabling the virus to spread rapidly through communities and resulting in thousands of deaths, lawmakers said in a damning report published Tuesday.
The report, an initial assessment by the British Parliament’s Health and Social Care, and Science and Technology committees, said the United Kingdom’s Covid response was slow and “reactive.”
Among the biggest failures of the government’s approach was an initial policy at the start of the pandemic of trying to manage the spread of Covid, rather than stop it spreading altogether, the lawmakers said.
They also criticized a delayed lockdown, failures in the UK’s contact-tracing program, and a lack of attention given to the most vulnerable, specifically those in the social care sector and at-risk communities – namely Black, Asian and other ethnic minorities. The report also said there was little interest in learning from the experiences of other countries, such as those in East Asia that were the first to deal with the pandemic.
One bright spot for the UK government, however, is the speedy and effective deployment of its vaccine program, the report highlighted.
The 150-page report is the result of a cross-party inquiry, which began in October 2020, examining the initial UK response to the pandemic. It contains 38 recommendations to the government and public bodies, and draws on evidence from more than 50 witnesses and 400 written submissions.
Herd immunity and delayed lockdown
The report said the government – backed by scientific advisers – made a “serious early error” during the first three months of the pandemic by not rigorously moving to stop the virus’ spread, an approach adopted by many East and Southeast Asian countries.
“This amounted in practice to accepting that herd immunity by infection was the inevitable outcome,” the report said, with the likely result in “hundreds of thousands of deaths.”
The UK has reported 138,167 fatalities from Covid-19 since the pandemic started, according to Johns Hopkins University data – more than any other country in Western Europe.
Other countries and places in Europe and Asia, including China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand and South Korea, implemented strict border controls, social distancing and early lockdowns as soon as cases emerged – some as early as January 2020 – to control the pandemic.
The report said there was a degree of “groupthink” between official scientific advisers and the government in which ministers did little to question the advice they received and that meant the UK was “not as open to approaches being taken elsewhere.”
This led to a delay in the nationwide lockdown, which was imposed in the UK on March 23, 2020.
“However, even when UK policy had changed to bring in a comprehensive national lockdown, the role of non-pharmaceutical interventions against Covid-19 was complex, inconsistent and opaque for most of the rest of 2020,” the report added.
‘Test and Trace’
Another area the report vehemently criticized is the UK’s “Test and Trace” program. The report referred to Public Health England’s efforts as “poor” and concluded that ultimately the program “failed.”
“Despite being one of the first countries in the world to develop a test for Covid in January 2020, the United Kingdom failed to translate that scientific leadership into operational success in establishing an effective test and trace system during the first year of the pandemic,” the report said.
The report said it was a “serious mistake” to stop community testing early in the pandemic and national public bodies failed to share data with each other, including between national and local governments.
“A country with a world-class expertise in data analysis should not have faced the biggest health crisis in a hundred years with virtually no data to analyze,” the report said.
“What was being achieved in other countries, particularly East Asia, appeared to be of little interest in the initial weeks of the pandemic,” the report added. “This was an inexcusable oversight.”
The report said despite vast sums of taxpayers’ money being directed toward the “Test and Trace” program, it never fully delivered at preventing additional lockdowns and “were it not for the success of the Vaccine Taskforce and the NHS vaccination program, it is likely that further lockdown restrictions would have been needed in Summer 2021.”
The report also criticized the lack of attention given by the UK government to the most vulnerable, specifically those in the social care sector and at-risk communities, namely Black, Asian and other ethnic minorities.
“It is telling that the first ten NHS staff to die from Covid-19 were from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, and evidence has since confirmed that the impact of Covid-19 on this section of the workforce has been significant,” the report said.
The lawmakers said it was a “mistake” to allow patients to be transferred from hospitals to care homes “without adequate testing or rigorous isolation” shown in places like Germany and Hong Kong.
“This, combined with untested staff bringing infection into homes from the community, led to many thousands of deaths which could have been avoided,” the report said.
In its recommendations, the report said the government should ensure its “levelling up” agenda includes “specific policies to reduce health inequalities, with a particular focus on ensuring that certain groups, including people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, do not continue to face unequal health outcomes.”
One area of the UK’s pandemic performance that succeeded was its speedy vaccine development and effective deployment, the report said.
“The government presciently identified that a vaccine would be the long-term route out of the pandemic and supported the research and development of a number of Covid-19 vaccines,” the report said.
It added the program “has been one of the most effective initiatives in the history of UK science and public administration” and a result of which is “millions of lives will ultimately be saved.”