Report brands Government pandemic response one of the UK's worst public health failures as Doncaster deaths reach 943

Serious errors and delays at the hands of the Government and scientific advisers cost lives during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a damning report from MPs.

Tuesday, 12th October 2021, 12:30 pm

The report said the government approach to manage the situation and in effect achieve herd immunity by infection led to a delay in introducing the first lockdown, costing thousands of lives.

But the report highlights successes too, including the vaccination rollout.

The report is released as the latest available total of cumulative deaths in Doncaster (with Covid written on death certificate), registered up to September 24, 2021 stands at 943.The study, from the cross-party Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee, said the UK’s preparation for a pandemic was far too focused on flu, while ministers waited too long to push through lockdown measures in early 2020.

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Government approach to Covid-19 had serious errors and delays which led to deaths says new report.

In a wide-ranging report, MPs said the UK’s pandemic planning was too “narrowly and inflexibly based on a flu model” that failed to learn the lessons from Sars, Mers and Ebola.

Former chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies told MPs there was “groupthink”, with infectious disease experts not believing that “Sars, or another Sars, would get from Asia to us”.

The UK’s national risk register, which was in place at the start of the pandemic, said “the likelihood of an emerging infectious disease spreading within the UK is assessed to be lower than that of a pandemic flu”. It also said only up to 100 people may die during any outbreak of an emerging infectious disease.

Once Covid-19 emerged in China, MPs said the UK policy was to take a “gradual and incremental approach” to interventions such as social distancing, isolation and lockdowns.

In their study, they said this was “a deliberate policy” proposed by scientists and adopted by UK governments, which has now been shown to be “wrong” and led to a higher death toll.

Experts and ministers sought to “only moderate the speed of infection” through the population – flattening the curve – rather than seeking to stop its spread altogether.

The MPs said the “decisions on lockdowns and social distancing during the early weeks of the pandemic – and the advice that led to them – rank as one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced”.

On the issue of whether the Government was pursuing a policy of herd immunity, which has proved controversial, MPs said that while it was not an official Government strategy, there was a “policy approach of fatalism about the prospects for Covid in the community”.

The report added: “The policy was pursued until March 23 because of the official scientific advice the Government received, not in spite of it.”

Even as late as March 12 2020, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, told a Government press conference that it was not possible to stop everyone being infected, and nor was that a desirable objective.

The following day, members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) also said they were “unanimous that measures seeking to completely suppress spread of Covid-19 will cause a second peak”.

After hearing evidence from people including the Prime Minister’s former adviser Dominic Cummings, and former health secretary Matt Hancock, the MPs concluded it was only in the days leading up to the March 23 lockdown that people within Government and advisers “experienced simultaneous epiphanies that the course the UK was following was wrong, possibly catastrophically so”.

A paper from Imperial College London, presented to Sage, was among models showing that an unmitigated epidemic could result in around 500,000 UK deaths.

MPs concluded it was “astonishing” it took so long for Sage to say a full lockdown was needed and for the Government to implement one, adding they thought the evidence showed a lockdown was “inevitable”.

In other criticisms in the 151-page report, MPs said the UK also implemented “light-touch border controls” only on countries with high Covid rates, even though 33% of cases during the first wave were introduced from Spain and 29% from France.

They also argued that earlier social distancing and locking down “would have bought much-needed time” for vaccine research to bear fruit, for Covid treatments to be developed and for a proper test and trace system to be set up.

They said the “early weeks of the pandemic expose deficiencies in both scientific advice and Government action”, with no real idea of how far the virus had spread and a downplaying of the role of asymptomatic transmission.

The lack of testing capacity also meant there was nowhere near enough data on Covid spread, while abandoning community testing on March 12 was regarded by MPs as a “seminal failure”.

Elsewhere, MPs said that thousands of elderly people died in care homes during the first wave of the pandemic, something that showed “social care had a less prominent voice in Government during the early stages of the pandemic than did the NHS”.

The decision not to test people discharged from hospitals to care homes early on was a failure and led to deaths, they added.

In a joint statement, Tory MPs Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt, who chair the committees, said: “The UK response has combined some big achievements with some big mistakes. It is vital to learn from both to ensure that we perform as best as we possibly can during the remainder of the pandemic and in the future.

“Our vaccine programme was boldly planned and effectively executed. Our test and trace programme took too long to become effective.

“The Government took seriously scientific advice but there should have been more challenge from all to the early UK consensus that delayed a more comprehensive lockdown when countries like South Korea showed a different approach was possible.

“In responding to an emergency, when much is unknown, it is impossible to get everything right."