Government’s early Covid response ‘amounted in practice’ to herd immunity, MPs say
The government’s early handling of Covid-19 “amounted in practice” to the pursuit of herd immunity, a parliamentary report has found, with the delayed decision to lock down in spring last year ranking as one of the “most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced”.
Ministers have repeatedly denied that the government sought to build up population immunity against the virus by allowing it to freely spread in the UK. However, findings from a cross-party inquiry show this was the “effective consequence” of the initial response to Covid, resulting in tens of thousands of avoidable deaths.
Rather than seek to suppress the virus at the beginning of 2020, as other nations did, Britain sought to manage its spread through the community by slowly introducing social distancing measures without committing to a lockdown, the report said.
More than 50 witnesses have contributed to the 150-page report, including ministers, NHS officials, government advisers and leading scientists. It concludes that:
- Government experts were fixated on influenza prior to 2020 and did not see coronaviruses as a threat to the UK
- The government initially adopted a “deliberate policy” that “amounted in practice” to seeking herd immunity. The decision to manage, rather than suppress, infections proved fatal for tens of thousands
- The abandonment of community testing on 12 March was a “seminal failure” and “cost many lives”
- NHS Test and Trace has “failed to make a significant enough impact on the course of the pandemic to justify the level of public investment it received”
- Social care has been overlooked by the government throughout the pandemic, while minority ethnic communities experienced higher levels of death in its early phase.
Labour said the report reinforced the immediate need for a public inquiry “so mistakes of such tragic magnitude are never repeated again”, while its authors said it was “vital” that lessons were learnt from the failings of the past 18 months.
The cross-party report, led by two select committees for health and science, draws on 400 written statements and accounts from various officials involved in the UK response, including former health secretary Matt Hancock, chief medical officer Chris Whitty, and Dominic Cummings, the former chief adviser to the prime minister.
It examines six key areas: pandemic preparedness prior to 2020; lockdowns and social distancing; testing and tracing; the impact of the crisis on social care and at-risk communities; and the rollout of the vaccines.
Prior to the emergence of Covid, the UK’s pandemic planning was too “narrowly and inflexibly based on a flu model” that failed to learn the lessons from Sars, Mers and Ebola, MPs heard.
Former chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies told the inquiry there had been “groupthink”, with infectious disease experts not believing that “Sars, or another Sars, would get from Asia to us”. She likened it to a “form of British exceptionalism”.
MPs concluded that, in the opening months of the crisis, those in power were operating through a “veil of ignorance” that was “partly self-inflicted”, with ministers and scientific advisers unwilling to learn from the experiences and tactics of other countries, notably in east Asia.
This was an “inexcusable oversight”, the report said, adding that a culture of “groupthink” had taken hold in Downing Street, which should have been challenged. Rather than “doing everything possible to halt the virus” – like governments in South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong – the government instead adopted a “slow and gradualist approach”.
Guided by a desire to protect the economy, and the belief among Sage members that complete suppression of Covid would lead to a later second wave in 2020, the option of lockdown was initially dismissed in favour of gradually introducing social distancing polices that sought to moderate the pace of spread and flatten the curve of the first peak.
“This amounted in practice to accepting that herd immunity by infection was the inevitable outcome”, given the lack of a vaccine and the UK’s limited testing capacity, the MPs said, meaning there were no real measures in place to protect the population from catching the virus.
Even as late as 12 March, Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, said that it was not possible to stop everyone being infected and nor was that a desirable objective.
It was a “deliberate” and “dubious” policy, the MPs concluded, which was seriously mistaken in assuming that an “unknown and rampant virus could be regulated in such a precise way” and which “led to a higher initial death toll than would have resulted from a more emphatic early policy”.
Officials leading the response failed to question the prevailing scientific consensus that had been established in government, the report added. Mr Cummings told the MPs he was “incredibly frightened” of challenging the “official plan”, while Mr Hancock said he “bitterly” regretted the failure to overrule scientific advice.
Had the government changed tack and implemented lockdown just one week earlier, on 16 March, tens of thousands of deaths could have been prevented, the inquiry was told.
“As a result, 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,” the report concludes.
It also says that the abandonment of community testing on 12 March was a “seminal failure” and “cost many lives”. NHS Test and Trace was established in May 2020, but its “chaotic” performance throughout the year “hampered” the UK’s response to Covid-19, culminating in the imposition of two more lockdowns.
“Vast sums of taxpayers’ money were directed to Test and Trace, justified by the benefits of avoiding further lockdowns. But ultimately those lockdowns happened,” the report adds.
Robert West, a professor of health psychology at University College London, said that the “damning” conclusions of the report would typically “lead to resignations” in other countries.
The government said it was “committed” to learning lessons from the pandemic and would be holding a full public inquiry in the spring. A spokesperson said: “Throughout the pandemic we have been guided by scientific and medical experts, and we never shied away from taking quick and decisive action to save lives and protect our NHS, including introducing restrictions and lockdowns.
“Thanks to a collective national effort, we avoided NHS services becoming overwhelmed, and our phenomenal vaccination programme has built a wall of defence, with over 24.3 million infections prevented and more than 130,000 lives saved so far.”