Delay in imposing lockdown cost thousands of U.K. lives, report says

LONDON – The UK government waited too long to impose a lockdown in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, missed a chance to contain the disease and resulted in thousands of unnecessary deaths, according to a parliamentary report concluded Tuesday.

The deadly delay resulted from ministers’ failure to question the recommendations of scientific advisers, creating a dangerous “groupthink” that, according to the joint House of Representatives report, led them to reject the more aggressive strategies in East and Southeast Asia. and Commons health committees.

It wasn’t until the UK’s National Health Service threatened to be overwhelmed by rapidly rising infections that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government finally ordered a lockdown.

“There was a desire to avoid a lockdown as it would cause immense damage to the economy, normal health services and society,” the report said. “In the absence of other strategies such as rigorous case isolation, meaningful test-and-trace operation, and robust border controls, a full lockdown was inevitable and should have happened sooner.”

The UK Parliament’s report is frustrated with the timing of a formal public inquiry into the government’s response to Covid-19, which Johnson said will begin next spring.

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Lawmakers said its investigation is aimed at uncovering why the UK performed “significantly worse” than many other countries in the early days of the pandemic, in order for the UK to improve its response to the ongoing Covid-19 threat and prepare for future threats can.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s administration has come under fire for its initial response to the pandemic.Toby Melville / Reuters file

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 MPs from the three largest parties in Parliament: the ruling Conservatives and the opposition Labor Party and the Scottish National Party.

The committees praised 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 UK’s successful vaccination program, with nearly 80 percent of people 12 and older being fully vaccinated.

“Millions of lives will ultimately be saved as a result of the global vaccination effort in which Britain has played a leading role,” the committees said.

However, they also criticized the government’s test-and-trace program, saying its slow, uncertain and often chaotic performance hampered the UK’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 because testing capacity was limited; that there was no immediate prospect of a vaccine; and the belief that the public would not accept a prolonged lockdown, the report reads. As a result, the government was simply trying to control the spread of the virus rather than trying to stop it altogether.

The report described this as a “serious early mistake” shared by the UK with many countries in Europe and North America.

“Accountability in a democracy depends on elected decision-makers not only accepting advice, but examining, questioning and questioning it before making their own decisions,” the committees say. “While this was a rapidly changing situation given the large number of deaths predicted, it was surprising that the initially fatalistic assumptions about the impossibility of suppressing the virus were not challenged until it became clear that the NHS was overwhelmed would.”

Paramedics assist a Covid patient in front of the Royal London Hospital on January 5, 2021.Justin Tallis / AFP via Getty Images

Trish Greenhalgh, professor of primary health care at Oxford University, said the report “indicates a less healthy” relationship between government and academic institutions.

With Covid-19 still killing hundreds of people every week in the UK, advisory committees continue to debate exactly what evidence is “sufficiently definitive” to be considered safe, she said.

“Uncertainty is a defining feature of crises,” said Greenhalgh. “Do we dare to replace ‘following science’ with ‘consider what is best to do when the problem is urgent but we are not sure’? to repeat the mistakes of the recent past, we have to. “

Even senior officials like Cummings and Hancock told the committees they were reluctant to oppose the scientific consensus.

As early as January 28, 2020, Hancock said he found it difficult to push for widespread testing of people who did not show symptoms of Covid-19 because scientific advisors said it was not useful.

“I was in a situation where I didn’t have hard evidence that decades of global scientific consensus was wrong, but rather had instinct,” he said. “I deeply regret that I have not overridden this scientific advice.”

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