Covid failure: The key points as damning report claims thousands of deaths were avoidable

12 October 2021, 12:25 | Updated: 13 October 2021, 07:53

By Patrick Grafton-Green

A damning report from MPs has found the early handling of the Covid pandemic was one of the UK's worst ever public health failures.

Serious errors and delays at the hands of the Government and even scientific advisers cost lives during the pandemic, the 151-page report said.

Titled Coronavirus: Lessons learned to date, it was put together by the Health and Social Care Committee and the Science and Technology Committee, which contain MPs from all parties.

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Lockdowns too late

The report said ministers waited too long to push through lockdown measures in early 2020.

Once Covid emerged in China, MPs said the UK policy was to take a "gradual and incremental approach" to interventions such as social distancing, isolation and lockdowns.

In their study, they said this was "a deliberate policy" proposed by scientists and adopted by UK governments, which has now been shown to be "wrong" and led to a higher death toll.

The MPs added the "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".

They said it was "astonishing" it took so long for the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) to say a full lockdown was needed and for the Government to implement one.

Regarding the second lockdown, MPs said that had more stringent social distancing measures been adopted during the autumn, they could have "reduced the seeding of the Alpha variant across the country, slowed its spread and therefore have saved lives".

Focus on flu

The UK's pandemic planning was too "narrowly and inflexibly based on a flu model" that failed to learn the lessons from Sars, Mers and Ebola, it said.

Former chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies told MPs there was "groupthink", with infectious disease experts not believing that "Sars, or another Sars, would get from Asia to us".

The UK's national risk register, which was in place at the start of the pandemic, said "the likelihood of an emerging infectious disease spreading within the UK is assessed to be lower than that of a pandemic flu".

It also said only up to 100 people may die during any outbreak of an emerging infectious disease.

Herd immunity

On the issue of whether the Government was pursuing a policy of herd immunity, which has proved controversial, MPs said that while it was not an official strategy, there was a "policy approach of fatalism about the prospects for Covid in the community".

Experts and ministers sought to "only moderate the speed of infection" through the population - flattening the curve - rather than seeking to stop its spread altogether.

The report added: "The policy was pursued until March 23 because of the official scientific advice the Government received, not in spite of it."

As late as March 12 2020, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government's chief scientific adviser, told a Government press conference that it was not possible to stop everyone being infected, and nor was that a desirable objective.

The following day, members of Sage also said they were "unanimous that measures seeking to completely suppress spread of Covid-19 will cause a second peak".

MPs concluded it was only in the days leading up to the March 23 lockdown that people within Government and advisers "experienced simultaneous epiphanies that the course the UK was following was wrong, possibly catastrophically so".

Test and Trace

MPs also argued that earlier social distancing and locking down "would have bought much-needed time" for vaccine research to bear fruit, for Covid treatments to be developed and for a proper test and trace system to be set up.

The lack of testing capacity meant there was nowhere near enough data on Covid's spread, while abandoning community testing on March 12 was regarded by MPs as a "seminal failure".

The "slow, uncertain, and often chaotic performance of the test, trace and isolate system severely hampered the UK's response to the pandemic", they said.

It "ultimately failed in its stated objective to prevent future lockdowns despite vast quantities of taxpayers' money being directed to it," the report added.

Border policy

MPs said the UK "did not impose blanket or rigorous border controls at the onset of Covid-19" but instead implemented "light-touch border controls" only on countries with high Covid rates.

The report added: "While the UK initially focused on China, Iran, South Korea and Italy, a significant number of cases came from elsewhere.

"A study found that 33% of cases during the first wave were introduced from Spain and 29% were introduced from France."

It said: "By contrast, other countries implemented more rigorous border controls which were more effective at suppressing the virus and preventing the need for long and repeated lockdowns."

Care homes

MPs said thousands of elderly people died in care homes during the first wave of the pandemic, something that showed "social care had a less prominent voice in government during the early stages of the pandemic than did the NHS".

The decision not to test people discharged from hospitals to care homes early on was a failure and led to deaths, they added.

The report said: "The lack of priority attached to social care during the initial phase of the pandemic was illustrative of a longstanding failure to afford social care the same attention as the NHS.

"The rapid discharge of people from hospitals into care homes without adequate testing or rigorous isolation was indicative of the disparity."

It said it was a "mistake to allow patients to be transferred to care homes without the rigour shown in places like Germany and Hong Kong". 

"This, combined with untested staff bringing infection into homes from the community, led to many thousands of deaths which could have been avoided," the report added.

Ethnic minorities

MPs also noted "unacceptably high death rates among people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities" and those with learning disabilities. 

"Increased exposure to Covid as a result of people's housing and working conditions played a significant role" as well as comorbidities such as cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure and diabetes.

The report added that "it is telling that the first ten NHS staff to die from Covid-19 were from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds".

People with learning difficulties and autism were also disproportionately affected, with difficulties accessing care playing a part in addition to pre-existing health conditions.

A "need for an urgent and long term strategy to tackle health inequalities" was highlighted.

Vaccine success

MPs offered praise in two areas - treatments and vaccines - saying ministers were "correct to identify that a vaccine would be the long-term route out of the pandemic" and supported research and development.

The report said the UK vaccine rollout was "one of the most effective in Europe and, for a country of our size one of the most effective in the world".

It said the programme "sprang into large scale operation explosively and impressively, rather than slowly and inadequately".

It added that it made good use of "existing NHS resources - hospitals, GPs and pharmacists" and "welcomed third party assistance - such as the countless volunteer groups across the country".