The British government waited too long to impose a lockdown in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, missing the opportunity to contain the disease and causing thousands of unnecessary deaths, a parliamentary report concluded on Tuesday.
The deadly delay was due to ministers not questioning the scientific advisers’ recommendations, resulting in a dangerous level of “groupthink” that led them to scrap the more aggressive strategies adopted in East and Southeast Asia, according to the joint report of the House of Representatives. Science and health committees of the commons.
It was only when Britain’s National Health Service risked being overwhelmed by rapidly rising infections that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government finally ordered the shutdown.
“There was a desire to avoid a lockdown due to the immense damage it would do to the economy, normal health services and society,” the report says. “In the absence of other strategies, such as rigorous isolation of cases, a meaningful trace and trace operation, and strong border controls, a total lockdown was inevitable and should have come sooner.”
The UK parliamentary report comes amid frustration with the timing for a formal public inquiry into the government’s response to Covid-19, which Johnson says will begin next spring.
The lawmakers said their investigation was designed to find out why Britain performed “significantly worse” than many other countries during the early days of the pandemic so that the UK could improve its response to the current threat of Covid-19 and prepare for future threats.
The 150-page report is based on the testimony of 50 witnesses, including former Health Secretary Matt Hancock and former government member Dominic Cummings. It was approved unanimously by 22 lawmakers from the three largest parties in Parliament: the ruling Conservatives and the opposition Labor Party and the Scottish National Party.
The committees hailed the government’s early focus on vaccines as the ultimate exit from the pandemic and its decision to invest in vaccine development. These decisions led to Britain’s successful vaccination program, which has seen nearly 80% of people over the age of 12 now fully vaccinated.
“Ultimately, millions of lives will be saved as a result of the global vaccine effort in which the UK has played a leading role,” the committees said.
But they also criticized the government’s test-and-trace program, saying its slow, uncertain and often chaotic performance hampered Britain’s response to the pandemic.
The government’s strategy during the first three months of the crisis reflected the official scientific advice that widespread infection was inevitable given that testing capacity was limited; that there were no immediate prospects for a vaccine; and the belief that the public would not accept a prolonged shutdown, according to the report. As a result, the government sought to simply control the spread of the virus, rather than trying to stop it entirely.
The report described this as a “serious early mistake” that the UK shared with many countries in Europe and North America.
“Accountability in a democracy depends on elected decision makers not only taking advice, but examining, questioning and challenging it before making their own decisions,” the committees said. “Although it was a rapidly changing situation, given the large number of deaths predicted, it was surprising that initially fatalistic assumptions about the inability to suppress the virus were not challenged until it was clear that the NHS would be overwhelmed.”
Trish Greenhalgh, a professor of primary care health services at the University of Oxford, said the report “hints at an unhealthy relationship” between government and scientific bodies. With Covid-19 still killing hundreds of people every week in Britain, advisory committees continue to debate exactly what evidence is “definitive enough” to be considered safe, he said.
“Uncertainty is a defining characteristic of crises …” Greenhalgh said. “Dare we replace ‘following the science’ with ‘deliberating on what to do better when the problem is urgent but the certainty eludes us’? This report suggests that unless we want to keep repeating the mistakes of the recent past, we must. ”
Even senior officials like Cummings and Hancock told the committees that they were reluctant to reject the scientific consensus.
Hancock said that as early as January 28, 2020, it was difficult for him to push for widespread testing of people showing no symptoms of Covid-19 because scientific advisers said it would not be helpful.
“I was in a situation where I didn’t have strong evidence that a decades-long global scientific consensus was wrong, but I had an instinct that it was,” he testified. “I am bitterly sorry I did not override that scientific advice.”