Early pandemic response among UK's worst ever public health failures, say MPs

The UK's slow initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic cost lives and is among its 'most important public health failures', according to a report by MPs that also hails the success of the vaccine rollout.

Coronavirus (Photo: Radoslav Zilinskiy/Getty Images)
Coronavirus (Photo: Radoslav Zilinskiy/Getty Images)

Delays in implementing lockdowns and measures such as social distancing early in the pandemic were the wrong approach and 'led to a higher initial death toll than would have resulted from a more emphatic early policy', according to a report from the House of Commons committees for science and technology and health and social care.

By contrast, the rollout of COVID-19 vaccination in the UK is hailed as 'one of the most successful and effective initiatives in the history of UK science and public administration'.

The successful rollout of vaccines - with more than 80% of the UK adult population now double jabbed - 'redeemed many of the persistent failings of other parts of the national response such as the test and trace system', the report said.

COVID-19 testing

Test and Trace was set up too late and 'failed to make a significant enough impact on the course of the pandemic to justify the level of public investment it received', MPs warned. On testing, the report adds: 'Despite being one of the first countries in the world to develop a test for COVID-19 in January 2020, the UK failed to translate that scientific leadership into operational success in establishing an effective test and trace system during the first year of the pandemic.'

The NHS as a whole 'responded quickly and strongly to the demands of the pandemic', the report says - but has been under intense pressure in part because 'compared to other health systems it “runs hot” - with little spare capacity built in to cope with sudden and unexpected surges of demand'.

The report says the government and the NHS should consider a 'reserve volunteer database' for emergencies, and calls for 'a more explicit, and monitored, surge capacity being part of the long-term organisation and funding of the NHS'.

The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on people from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds is condemned in the report, which warns that the government's 'levelling up' agenda must include policies to reduce health inequalities.

Social care

The reports highlights 'massive strain' during the pandemic on a social care system that was already struggling, particularly given its role in caring for older people who have faced the greatest risk of death from COVID-19.

Health and social care committee chair Jeremy Hunt and science and technology committee chair Greg Clark 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. In responding to an emergency, when much is unknown, it is impossible to get everything right. We record our gratitude to all those - NHS and care workers, scientists, officials in national and local government, workers in our public services and in private businesses and millions of volunteers - who responded to the challenge with dedication, compassion and hard work to help the whole nation at one of our darkest times.'

Responding to the report, BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: 'The UK has suffered one of the worst tolls from COVID-19 in the Western world, in terms of numbers of cases, hospitalisations and deaths.

Vaccination programme

'The report gives well-deserved praise to the development and deployment of one of the most successful vaccine programmes in history, which was delivered largely by the hard work and dedication of doctors and healthcare staff.

'The report also reveals the significance of the failures from the very start of the pandemic. It highlights several consequential mistakes, which have been flagged by the BMA, including delays in implementing robust public health measures such as the initial lockdown, when it was clear the virus was spiralling out of control.

'Lives were lost due to the government’s delay to bringing in the initial lockdown, ignoring scientific advice at crucial junctures, and the institutional failures of Test and Trace. The way in which the government abandoned social care, the inadequate provision and supply of PPE, and the lack of proper health risk assessment, especially for black, Asian and ethnic minority staff, forced health and care staff to put their lives at risk to protect their patients.'

Dr Ellen Welch, a GP and Doctors' Association UK representative said: 'The report confirms much of what NHS staff have tried to vocalise since the outset of the pandemic. As a GP working in the 111 service last March, we watched as guidance on testing and isolation changed on a daily basis.

'People with obvious symptoms of COVID-19 were unable to access testing, and isolation was not mandatory for many when it clearly should have been. As the world locked down the UK dallied. Much of the devastation caused by this pandemic could have been prevented and lessons really do need to be learned to ensure this doesn’t happen again.'

A government spokesperson said: 'Throughout the pandemic we have been guided by scientific and medical experts and we never shied away from taking quick and decisive action to save lives and protect our NHS, including introducing restrictions and lockdowns.

'Thanks to a collective national effort, we avoided NHS services becoming overwhelmed and our phenomenal vaccination programme has built a wall of defence, with over 24.3m infections prevented and more than 130,000 lives saved so far.

'As the prime minister has said, we are committed to learning lessons from the pandemic and have committed to holding a full public inquiry in spring.'

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