LONDON – The UK government waited too long to impose a lockdown at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, missing a chance to contain the disease and leading to thousands of unnecessary deaths, a parliamentary report concluded on Tuesday.
The deadly delay is due to the inability of ministers to question the recommendations of science advisers, which has resulted in a dangerous level of “group thinking” that has led them to reject the more aggressive strategies adopted in Asia. East and Southeast, according to the joint report of the House of Representatives. Commons Science and Health Committees. It wasn’t until Britain’s National Health Service risked being overwhelmed by a rapid rise in infections that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Tory government finally ordered a lockdown.
“There was a desire to avoid a foreclosure because of the immense damage it would cause to the economy, normal health services and society,” the report said. “In the absence of other strategies such as rigorous case isolation, meaningful testing and traceability, and robust border controls, a full lockdown was inevitable and should have happened sooner.”
The UK parliamentary report comes amid frustration over the timing of a formal public inquiry into the government’s response to COVID-19, which Johnson says will begin next spring.
Lawmakers said their investigation aimed to find out why Britain performed “significantly worse” than many other countries during the early days of the pandemic so the UK could improve its response to the continuing threat of COVID-19 and prepare for future threats.
The 150-page report is based on testimony from 50 witnesses, including former Health Secretary Matt Hancock and former government insider Dominic Cummings. It was unanimously approved by 22 lawmakers from the three largest parties in Parliament: the ruling Tories and the opposition Labor Party and the Scottish National Party.
The committees hailed the government’s early focus on vaccines as the ultimate way out of the pandemic and its decision to invest in vaccine development. These decisions led to the success of Britain’s inoculation program, which has seen nearly 80% of people aged 12 and over now fully immunized.
“Millions of lives will ultimately be saved thanks to the global immunization effort in which the UK has played a leading role,” the committees said.
But they also criticized the government’s testing and traceability program, saying its slow, uncertain and often chaotic performance was hampering Britain’s response to the pandemic.
The government’s strategy during the first three months of the crisis reflected official scientific advice that widespread infection was inevitable given that testing capacity was limited; that there was no immediate prospect for a vaccine; and the belief that the public would not accept a long lockdown, according to the report. As a result, the government has simply sought to manage the spread of the virus, instead of trying to stop it altogether.
The report described this as a “serious initial mistake” that the UK shared with many countries in Europe and North America.
“Accountability in a democracy depends on elected decision makers not just taking advice, but reviewing, questioning and challenging it before making their own decisions,” the committees said. “Although this is a rapidly evolving situation, given the large number of deaths expected, it was surprising that the initially fatalistic assumptions about the impossibility of removing the virus were not questioned until ‘until it became clear that the NHS would be overwhelmed. “
Trish Greenhalgh, professor of primary health care services at the University of Oxford, said the report “hints at a less than healthy relationship” between government and scientific bodies. While COVID-19 still kills hundreds of people every week in Britain, advisory committees continue to debate exactly what evidence is “definitive enough” to be considered certain, she said.
“Uncertainty is a defining characteristic of crises…” said Greenhalgh. “Shall we dare to replace ‘follow the science’ by ‘deliberate on what is best to do when the problem is urgent but the certainty escapes 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 committees they were reluctant to challenge the scientific consensus.
Hancock said that as of January 28, 2020, he was struggling to push for widespread testing on people who did not show symptoms of COVID-19, as science advisers said it would not help.
“I was in a situation where I didn’t have hard evidence that a decades-long global scientific consensus was wrong, but I had a hunch that it was,” he said. “I bitterly regret not having canceled this scientific opinion. “