Coronavirus: Ministers 'failed' to act on 'early' advice to protect care homes, Sage member reveals

Video report by ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston

In a new series, Coronavirus: What Happened, ITV News looks at the decisions the government made during the early stages of the pandemic, examining issues such as why vulnerable residents in care homes were put at serious risk, why health care workers struggled to obtain vital protective equipment, and why the UK did not increase virus testing capacity much earlier than it did.

Ministers "failed" to act on "early" advice to protect care home residents from coronavirus, a member of the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), has revealed.

Epidemiologist John Edmunds also admitted Sage should have been bolder in the guidance it gave to ministers when advising the government on how to combat the spread of Covid-19.

He told ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston that the government was warned about care homes being "particularly high risk" as early as February and ministers were told they "should stop infection getting into care homes".

Despite this, until April 15, the government's advice to hospitals was "negative tests are not required prior to transfers/admissions into the care home."

That advice resulted in over a month passing in which thousands of hospital patients were discharged into care homes with coronavirus symptoms.

Over 20,000 care home residents have died from coronavirus-related illness since Covid-19 hit the UK.

Mr Edmunds said the advice to hospitals prior to April 15 "makes no sense at all".

He said advice was given to ministers in February and Sage then "moved on" to other matters as the issue in care homes was "so obvious".

"Sage just gave scientific advice," he said, "scientific advice being care homes are particularly high risk; you should stop infection getting into care homes and do everything you can to stop infection once it's in care homes.

He added: "It's up to others to action that and do it, and that clearly failed."

The government hit back, saying it was guided by the latest scientific advice at "every stage" of the pandemic.

John Edmunds: 'Early on, it was discussed that care homes were a risk'

“On 13 March, care homes received advice on infection control and isolating residents or staff displaying symptoms, and this advice was continually updated as the situation changed," a spokesperson said in a statement.

Another widely acknowledged error made by the government was the decision to abandon its community testing and contact tracing strategy on March 12, just as the virus was reaching its peak.

Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the government would have known how "unbelievably important" mass testing was, had it learned the lessons from Sars epidemic - another coronavirus which began in China in the early 2000s.

Mr Hunt, who now chairs the Health and Social Care Committee, believes the error on testing was made because ministers were treating the virus as though it was similar to flu.

Jeremy Hunt: 'There was a groupthink that this virus would be like flu'

"There was a kind of group think that this was a flu like virus, which would be virtually impossible to stop," he said.

"All our preparations for pandemics had been preparations for pandemic flu, which are the viruses we had seen in this country, not for a pandemic SARS-like virus."

Mr Hunt said there were "clues" coming from Asia as early as January "that this was going to be different".

"China, South Korea, then Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong managed to contain to the spread of the virus to less than 1% of the population, which is something that would be very difficult to do with pandemic flu," he said.

He added: "If we had learnt the lessons of SARS, we would have see that mess testing is unbelievably important with this type of virus."

Mr Edmunds, a professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, admitted Sage's advice to the government could have been stronger.

Asked how that could happen, he said: "I think we did become bolder. I think at the beginning, I don't think timid is the right word, but I think we did become bolder."

He admitted it "took a long time" for the advice to become stronger but said the "enormous price" the UK has paid in the fight against coronavirus was not down to Sage being timid.

Edmunds admits Sage could have been 'bolder' at start of crisis

Mr Edmunds said widespread testing was abandoned due to issues with capacity which meant vast numbers of people who needed tests could not get one.

"What we were probably doing was just working within constraints rather than saying these restraints are mad, we need far more capacity.

"I think that was a mistake. I can’t speak for Sage, but speaking on my own terms, that's a mistake I shouldn't have made, I'm sure others would say similarly," he said.

Another mistake made by ministers, Mr Hunt said, was believing "the idea of herd immunity".

Mr Edmunds said herd immunity - the strategy of letting the virus pass through the population in order to achieve levels of immunity - was "was never a strategy to follow that we discussed".

He said both scientists and ministers had accepted that there were "four stages of the epidemic": containment, delay, research and mitigation.

The early strategy for dealing with the virus was built around the idea that at some point the virus would be impossible to contain.

Mr Hunt said: "I don’t think the scientists advising the Government welcomed the idea of herd immunity, I think they were resigned to it.

Hunt says scientists and ministers were 'resigned to the idea of herd immunity'

"I think they thought once this establishes itself, it will be impossible to stop it spreading to less than 60% of the population.

He added: "I think that was obviously the wrong approach, because if you have a disease that at the time had about a 1% mortality rate, you have a moral obligation to do everything in your power to stop it spreading and hope that something might come up.

"We've learned from Taiwan and South Korea and other Asian democracies is that you can get public consent for really quite draconian measures." 

Professor Edmunds said measure such as lockdown and border closures were "unthinkable" at the start of the pandemic.

He said advice back in early February was based on projections and models that scientists were "enormously uncertain" about.

"To close our borders, the economic impact is enormous," he said, "I think it was just unthinkable back then to take those really extreme measures which are now in place.

"Same with the lockdown. In some sense that's not very different to putting the whole country under house arrest for indeterminate, it's really an extreme measure. It worked, I'm really glad we did it, but it was unthinkable really early on."

Responding, a government spokesperson said: “Our strategy to delay, contain, research and mitigate was clear from the start. It’s categorically wrong to say herd immunity was our aim, which has always been to save lives and protect the NHS.”