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‘Serious errors’ in UK response to pandemic, official report says

Pandemic PPE

By Beth Gault
12 October 2021

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There were ‘serious errors’ in the Government’s initial response to the Covid-19 pandemic, including lockdown delays and testing failures, MPs have ruled. 

But the report, compiled jointly by the Health and Social Care committee and the Science and Technology committee, hailed the Covid vaccination programme as one of the ‘most effective initiatives in UK history’. 

The report, Coronavirus: lessons learned to date, assessed the initial UK response to the pandemic after hearing evidence from over 50 witnesses, including former health secretary Matt Hancock and chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, and 400 written submissions.

The investigation looked at six areas within the response – pandemic preparedness, lockdowns and social distancing, testing and contact tracing, social care, at risk communities and vaccines – and made 38 recommendations across these.

It found that the UK’s response to the pandemic was ‘too reactive,’ and needed to be more anticipatory, with the ‘notable exception’ of the vaccine programme.

It also found there had been ‘too little explicit learning’ from the international experience of the virus and the response ‘lacked speed in making timely decisions’.

The report suggested that the prominence of social care within the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) should be ‘enhanced’, and that the Government should ensure its ‘levelling up’ agenda includes specific policies on reducing health inequalities among Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.

It said: ‘It is essential that in any future crisis, NHS staff from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are included in emergency planning and decision-making structures.

‘NHS England should accelerate efforts to ensure that NHS leadership in every trust, foundation trust and Clinical Commissioning Group is representative of the overall Black, Asian and ethnic minority workforce.’

The preparedness of the NHS was also questioned, as although the service responded ‘quickly and strongly’ to the demands of the pandemic, it said there was ‘little spare capacity’ to cope with sudden pressures and demands.

‘Stunning’ vaccine programme

Despite the flaws in the UK response to the pandemic, the report applauded the vaccine programme as ‘one of the most stunning scientific achievements in history’.

It said: ‘The success of the vaccine programme—one of the most effective in Europe and, for a country of our size one of the most effective in the world—shows that positive as well as negative lessons should be taken from our handling of the pandemic.’

The report’s authors added that the support for and investment in the UK science base should be protected and enhanced in order to ensure preparedness for the future.

‘Science has saved the world from the even greater catastrophe of Covid-19 without the defence of vaccines. The experience should alert us to the risk of unforeseen threats against which a world-class and experienced scientific capability is the best investment,’ said the report.

It added that this was only an initial assessment of the handling of the pandemic and a public inquiry to examine the response in more detail should be launched ‘as soon as possible’.

In a joint statement, chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, Jeremy Hunt, and chair of the Science and Technology Committee, Greg Clark, 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 response to the report, BMA chair of council, Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: ‘The report gives well-deserved praise to the development and deployment of one of the most successful vaccine programmes in history, which was delivered largely by the hard work and dedication of doctors and healthcare staff.

But he added that it ‘also reveals the significance of the failures from the very start of the pandemic’.

‘Lives were lost due to the Government’s delay to bringing in the initial lockdown, ignoring scientific advice at crucial junctures, and the institutional failures of Test and Trace.

‘The way in which the Government abandoned social care, the inadequate provision and supply of PPE, and the lack of proper health risk assessment, especially for black, Asian and ethnic minority staff, forced health and care staff to put their lives at risk to protect their patients,’ he said.

He added: ‘The Government must take on board this report’s 38 recommendations and learn from the mistakes it has made, starting now. We are far from out of the woods with the pandemic, with rates of infection, illness and death in the UK continuing to be among the worst in comparator nations.’

It comes after comments from the Prime Minister last week that the Covid-related backlog will rise before it falls.

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