UK govt botched initial Covid response: MPs’ probe

UK lawmakers said on Tuesday that the government’s response when Covid-19 swept into Europe cost lives and was “one of the most important public health failures” in the country’s history.

In a damning assessment, a cross-party group of MPs found that official pandemic planning was too focused on influenza and had failed to learn the lessons from prior outbreaks of SARS, MERS and Ebola.

The 151-page study, published by two parliamentary committees after months of hearings, comes ahead of an independent public inquiry into the government’s coronavirus handling due to begin next year.

Britain has suffered one of the highest tolls in Europe with nearly 138 000 Covid-19 deaths since March last year, raising questions about why it has fared worse than comparable nations.

The MPs said Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government had waited too long to act in early 2020.

Leading advisors had pushed a “deliberate policy” to take a “gradual and incremental approach” to interventions such as social distancing, isolation and lockdowns, said the report.

That approach had been proved “wrong” and led to a higher death toll.

“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,” the lawmakers wrote.

There was a “policy approach of fatalism about the prospects for Covid in the community”, contributing to avoidable deaths in care homes after thousands of elderly patients were discharged from hospitals without testing.

But the report also praised the government’s rapid launch of a mass vaccination campaign against Covid in December, arguing that had “redeemed” some of the earlier failings.

‘Slap in the face’

Hannah Brady, spokeswoman for the group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, called the report overall “laughable”.

“This is an attempt to ignore and gaslight bereaved families, who will see it as a slap in the face,” she said.

The MPs said Britain had also mistakenly implemented “light-touch border controls” only on countries with high Covid rates, when most cases were coming from France and Spain.

Government planning for a pandemic was too “narrowly and inflexibly based on a flu model”, while ministers and scientific advisers were accused of “groupthink” by some experts, according to the report.

Conservative MP Jeremy Hunt, a former health secretary who chairs one of the report committees, said the government had also failed to absorb the early experience of South Korea and Taiwan, which were quick to introduce mass test and trace systems.

East Asian countries with direct experience of SARS and MERS responded best in the first half of the pandemic, Hunt told BBC radio.

“We were always running to catch up,” he said likening the response to a football match “with two very different halves” once the vaccination campaign began.

Shaking hands

The lawmakers took evidence from a range of figures, including Johnson’s controversial former chief adviser Dominic Cummings, who has repeatedly assailed the prime minister’s handling of the crisis.

Asked about the MPs’ report, Cummings told Sky News that he had been working on a new system of pandemic response after the first wave in 2020.

“Unfortunately the prime minister, being the joke that he is, has not pushed that work through,” he said.

In early March 2020, Johnson remarked he had been shaking the hands of Covid patients in hospital. Later that month, he was admitted himself to intensive care, and nearly died.

The prime minister has also faced criticism over his refusal to start the public inquiry sooner, after announcing it in May.

He intends to launch it next spring, arguing the inquiry with its power to summon witnesses under oath could hamper the country’s ongoing pandemic response.

Responding to the new report, government minister Steve Barclay noted the MPs’ praise of the vaccination rollout.

“But of course if there are lessons to learn, we are keen to do so,” he told Sky News, refusing to apologise and insisting the government had followed prevailing scientific advice.

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Jitendra Joshi
Guest Author
Joe Jackson
Joe Jackson

Joe Jackson is an experienced and versatile journalist, specialised in reporting and writing, currently based in London, U.K., working for AFP.

He regularly reported for the Wall Street Journal, Time and the New York Daily News, and contributed to the New York Times, the Guardian, Newsweek, AFP & Al Jazeera English, among others. He graduated in digital media from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and in politics from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

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