The UK government’s failure to contain coronavirus in the early days of the pandemic was “one of the most important public health failures” in British history, a major report by two of parliament’s cross-party select committees has concluded.
“Big mistakes” were made during the government’s early pandemic response, the report finds, naming the delay to introduce social distancing measures and the late March 2020 lockdown as a particular failure and concluding that “many thousands of deaths which could have been avoided” in care homes. The test and trace system is criticised as “slow, uncertain and often chaotic”, but the vaccine rollout is praised as one of the best in the world. The report is also damning about the preparedness of the UK going into the pandemic, identifying a lack of spare capacity in the NHS to deal with a sudden crisis.
The report tends to view these issues as a problem of structures, rather than of individual political failures. While the condemnation of the delay to lock down in March 2020 is unequivocal, the report frames this failure as a product of “groupthink” among top British decision-makers and their advisers, and is less critical about later decisions that can be attributed more directly to Boris Johnson and his ministers – around autumn restrictions, the delay to lock down during the winter wave, and that fateful day when we sent children back to school for 24 hours after the Christmas holidays before closing them again.
The report concludes that “an earlier, more stringent lockdown, would likely have reduced deaths” in the winter but caveats that “this is something we know now, but was not knowable at the time lockdown decisions were taken during the autumn: the existence of the Alpha variant was known only in December 2020”.
While the damning conclusions of this report about the early pandemic failures make the headlines, they are, ultimately, unsurprising. The report’s verdict on the later pandemic response – when mistakes had been made, lessons could be learned and politics was in play – is the real surprise.