11 key findings of report into UK government’s handling of Covid pandemic

Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaving the Westminster Bridge Vaccination Centre at St Thomas' Hospital, London, having received the first dose of AstraZeneca vaccine. Picture date: Friday March 19, 2021.  Aaron Chown/PA
The government's early handling of the pandemic has been branded a 'failure.' Credit: PA

A study has highlighted multiple incompetencies in the way the government and its scientific advisors handled the Covid-19 pandemic.

The study, by MPs in Parliament's Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee, looked at the government's management of the outbreak from the start of last year.

It found serious errors and delays at the hands of authorities that cost lives.

Here are the key findings from the damning report:

1. The UK's pandemic planning was outdated

UK was not prepared for the Covid pandemic as plans were too “narrowly and inflexibly based on a flu model” that failed to learn the lessons from Sars, Mers and Ebola, the report said.

It came despite assurances from Matt Hancock on January 23, 2020, that "the whole of the UK is always well-prepared for these types of outbreaks".

2. The first lockdown in March 2020 did not come early enough

Covid cases in the UK surged at the beginning of March, but it wasn't until March 23 that Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a lockdown.

There was a false belief that the public would not accept lockdown, or would only do so for a short period of time, the report said.

The report said government and scientists took "gradual and incremental approach" to introducing measures such as social distancing, isolation and lockdowns, but this was “wrong” and led to a higher death toll.

If social distancing and lockdown was brought in early, it “would have bought much-needed time” for vaccine research to begin, for Covid treatments to be developed and for a proper test and trace system to be set up, MPs said.

The MPs said 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”.

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3. Scientists in the UK did not treat Covid seriously enough in the early months

Former chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies said “groupthink” by infectious disease experts downplayed the seriousness of Covid and its potential risk of spread in the UK.

While herd immunity was not official government strategy, MPs said, the government adopted a “policy approach of fatalism”, seeking to “only moderate the speed of infection” through the population, rather than seeking to stop its spread altogether.

As late as March 12, chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, told a briefing that it was not possible to stop everyone being infected, and nor was that a desirable objective.

The MPs said 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”.

Blackpool under lockdown Credit: pa

4. A lack of data in early months led to poor decision-making

There was a lack of Covid data due to lack of testing capacity. MPs also branded the abandoning of community testing on March 12 a “seminal failure”.

MPs said “deficiencies in both scientific advice and government action” meant there was no real information about how far the virus had spread and authorities did not fully understand the role of asymptomatic transmission.

5. When the test and trace system began, it was 'slow, uncertain and often chaotic'

The report said the poorly-executed test and trace system “severely hampered the UK’s response to the pandemic”.

It also "took too long to become effective".

6. There weren't enough border controls to stop the virus reaching the country

The border controls in the first few months of 2020 were described as “light-touch” and were implemented only on countries with high Covid rates, even though 33% of cases during the first wave were introduced from Spain and 29% from France.

A Covid testing centre Credit: PA

7. More stringent Covid measures before second lockdown in November could have reduced the spread of the Alpha variant

MPs said more could have been done to reduce the spread of Covid before the second lockdown on November 5. More stringent social distancing measures in autumn could have “reduced the seeding of the Alpha variant across the country, slowed its spread and therefore have saved lives”.

8. The regional tier system was confusing and not good enough

The regional tier system that began on October 14 as confusing for the public, MPs said. Furthermore, it was not “watertight” enough to prevent infection spreading.

9. Minorities were hit the hardest

There were “unacceptably high death rates among people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities” and those with learning disabilities, the report noted.

Taxi driver wearing a PPE mask Credit: PA

10. Government failures led to thousands of elderly people dying in care homes

Thousands of care home residents died during the first wave of the pandemic.

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

They said during the early months, the government did not focus enough on social care, saying “social care had a less prominent voice in government during the early stages of the pandemic than did the NHS”.

11. The government did well with the vaccine programme

News of a coronavirus vaccine in early November, 2020, lifted the hopes of many after the Pfizer vaccine was proven to be 90% effective. In December, the UK became the first country in the world to approve a Covid vaccine.

MPs praised in the government's focus on treatments and vaccines, and described the vaccine programme as "boldly planned and effectively executed".

They said ministers were “correct to identify that a vaccine would be the long-term route out of the pandemic” and supported research and development.

In a joint statement, Tory MPs Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt, who chair the committees, 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.

“In responding to an emergency, when much is unknown, it is impossible to get everything right”.