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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Failure to challenge poor scientific advice during pandemic cost thousands of lives

In an interview with BBC Radio Four, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, said his advice now for winter would be to go “sooner” and “harder” with restrictions to get on top of the spread.  

His comments are in contrast to Spring 2020, when scientists advising the Government warned that coming down too hard would push cases back to the winter when the NHS would be less able to cope, and argued the public would not accept a lockdown.

Poor pandemic planning

The report also concluded that Britain’s pandemic planning was too heavily based on influenza, and had failed to incorporate lessons from outbreaks of Sars, Mers and Ebola.

And MPs criticised the “slow, uncertain and chaotic” performance of the test, trace and isolate system, which “severely hampered” the UK’s response to the pandemic.

However, the report did praise Britain’s vaccine programme, labelling it “one of the most stunning achievements in history”, which prevented a fourth lockdown this summer.

In a joint statement, Jeremy Hunt MP, the chairman of the Health and Social Care Committee, and Greg Clark MP, the chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, said: “The UK response has combined some big achievements with some big mistakes. 

“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.”

Analysis: The terrible mistakes, and how vaccine programme turned things around

The first major report into the Government’s pandemic response has highlighted a series of errors which are likely to have cost thousands of lives.

The Science and Technology Committee and Health and Social Care Committee has published an initial report following months of evidence from witnesses including Matt Hancock, Prof Chris Whitty, Sir Patrick Vallance and Dominic Cummings.

MPs concluded that while Britain’s Covid-19 vaccine programme was one of the most effective in history, a series of early mistakes left the UK struggling to keep the virus under control. 

Here is what they found:

The mistakes

Pandemic preparedness

When Johns Hopkins University undertook a global survey of which countries were the best prepared for a pandemic in October 2019, it was Britain and the US that came out top. Yet, when it came to coronavirus, the UK found itself seriously on the back foot.

The problem was Britain had planned for an influenza epidemic, which is not driven by asymptomatic transmission and where community testing and tracing of cases was less important.

Exercises to test national response capacity – Cygnus and Winter Willow – had not addressed a disease with Covid-19’s characteristics, and the Government had seriously underestimated how bad things could get.

The 2019 National Risk Register concluded an emerging virus would lead to a maximum of 100 deaths.

In the report, MPs said: “An over-reliance on pandemic influenza as the most important disease threat clearly had consequences. It means that the emphasis of detailed preparations was for what turned out to be the wrong type of disease.”

A lack of preparedness meant that the NHS was forced to divert resources to Covid-19 from across the health service, leading to a substantial increase in missed, delayed and cancelled appointments.

Lockdowns and social distancing

The large number of deaths in the first wave were largely driven by decisions made in the early weeks of the pandemic, when the Government was operating in a “fog of uncertainty”. 

Despite the UK developing a test for Covid in January 2020, testing was not rolled out widely and it was abandoned completely in the community in March due to a lack of capacity.

Unaware of how widespread the virus was, ministers and scientists agreed the best option was to try to manage Covid-19 rather than stop it.

Boris Johnson described this policy as “squashing the sombrero” and asked people with symptoms to stay at home, while advising the over-70s to avoid cruises and schools to stop foreign trips.

Scientists had warned the Government that coming down too hard would push cases back to the winter when the NHS would be less able to cope, and argued the public would not accept a lockdown.

But MPs described it as “fatalistic” approach which in practice amounted to herd immunity and said it should have been challenged by ministers.

It was only when it became apparent that the NHS would be overwhelmed that the Government finally imposed a lockdown on March 23. 

Experts have estimated that half the number of people would have died had the country locked down a week earlier.

Test and trace

Early on in the pandemic it was clear that Britain’s testing capacity was not sufficient to keep the virus under control.

By the end of January, Public Health England (PHE) could only manage up to 500 tests a day and in the crucial period between January 25 and March 11, 2020, just 27,476 tests were carried out: the equivalent of one test a day for each parliamentary constituency.

In contrast, by mid-March, Germany was testing 50,000 people per day. Without adequate testing it was impossible to monitor the virus.

The MPs said that the lack of testing left the country “facing the biggest health crisis in a hundred years with virtually no data to analyse”. 

“The UK was reduced to understanding the spread of Covid-19 by waiting for people to be so sick that they needed to be admitted to hospital,” the report added.

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