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“Big mistakes” were made in the handling of the pandemic, report finds

The early handling of the coronavirus pandemic was one of the worst public health failures in UK history, a Parliamentary report has found.

Covid-19 exposed “major deficiencies in the machinery of government”, with inadequate scrutiny of scientific advice and poor sharing of information between public bodies.

The report, by the House of Commons and Science and Technology Committee and Health and Social Care Committee, concludes that while some initiatives were examples of best practice others represented significant mistakes.

It says both must be reflected on to ensure that lessons are applied to better inform future responses to emergencies.

The 150-page report contains 38 recommendations to the Government and public bodies, and draws on evidence from over 50 witnesses—including Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP, Professor Chris Whitty, Sir Patrick Vallance, Sir Simon Stevens, Dame Kate Bingham, Baroness Harding of Winscombe and Dominic Cummings—as well as over 400 written submissions.

The joint inquiry, which began in October 2020, examined six key areas of the response to covid-19: the country’s preparedness for a pandemic; the use of non-pharmaceutical interventions such as border controls, social distancing and lockdowns to control the pandemic; the use of test, trace and isolate strategies; the impact of the pandemic on social care; the impact of the pandemic on specific communities; and the procurement and roll-out of covid-19 vaccines.

Areas of concern include:

  • The delays in establishing an adequate test, trace and isolate system hampered efforts to understand and contain the outbreak and it failed in its stated purpose to avoid lockdowns;
  • The initial decision to delay a comprehensive lockdown—despite practice elsewhere in the world—reflected a fatalism about the spread of covid that should have been robustly challenged at the time; and
  • Social care was not given sufficient priority in the early stages of the pandemic.

On the positive side, the forward-planning, agility and decisive organisation of the vaccine development and deployment effort will save millions of lives globally and should be a guide to future Government practice, the report says.

In a joint statement on the publication of the Coronavirus: lessons learned to date report, Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP, Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, and Rt Hon Greg Clark MP, Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, 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.”

Tackle inequalities

The report says the pandemic has highlighted the need for an urgent and long term strategy to tackle health inequalities.

The UK’s preparedness for a pandemic had been widely acclaimed in advance, it says, but performed less well than many other countries in practice.

Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “The pandemic has shone a stark light on the extent of the country’s health inequalities. We know that that those living in more deprived areas, as well as people from minority ethnic backgrounds, have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.  It is crucial that this systemic inequality is addressed once and for all. A long-term strategy to tackle health inequalities is urgent and long overdue.”

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