Covid exposed ‘major deficiencies in the machinery of government’, inquiry finds

Initial pandemic response 'one of the UK's most important public health failures', MPs say

Photo: VV Shots / Alamy Stock Photo

The government’s early response to Covid was among the worst-ever public health failures in the UK’s history, while the crisis exposed “major deficiencies in the machinery of government”, a report has found.

The first official inquiry into the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis said ministers were too slow to enact lockdowns and social-distancing measures when the virus was spreading in the first months of 2020.

The joint report by parliament’s science and technology and health and social care committees said the UK’s “gradual and incremental approach to introducing non-pharmaceutical interventions” rather than beginning a lockdown sooner was the “wrong policy, and that it led to a higher initial death toll than would have resulted from a more emphatic early policy”.

“It was a deliberate policy – proposed by official scientific advisers and adopted by the governments of all of the nations of the United Kingdom,” the report said.

Decisions on lockdowns and social distancing in the first weeks of the pandemic therefore “rank as one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced”, the MPs said.

The UK also “squandered a leading position in diagnostics and converted it into one of permanent crisis” by halting testing for Covid outside hospitals on 12 March, which meant contact tracing had to be abandoned, they said.

"The slow, uncertain, and often chaotic performance of the test, trace and isolate system severely hampered the UK’s response to the pandemic. This was partly because NHS Test and Trace was only established when daily infections had risen to 2,000," the report added.

The MPs said these failures happened “despite the UK counting on some of the best expertise available anywhere in the world, and despite having an open, democratic system that allowed plentiful challenge”.

“Painful though it is, the UK must learn what lessons it can of why this happened if we are to ensure it is not repeated,” they added.

Another of those lessons is that the machinery of government challenges that contributed to failures in the government’s handling of the pandemic, according to the report.

“The structures for offering scientific advice lacked transparency, international representation and structured challenge. Protocols to share vital information between public bodies were absent. The Civil Contingencies Secretariat was inadequately resourced, including with specialist expertise which had been removed. Scientific accomplishment was hampered by operational inadequacy,” it said.

The report did praise the way the government had handled the coronavirus vaccine rollout, which it said was “one of the most effective initiatives in the history of UK science and public administration”.

“Millions of lives will ultimately be saved as a result of the global vaccine effort in which the UK has played a leading part. In the UK alone, the successful deployment of effective vaccines has, as at September 2021, allowed a resumption of much of normal life with incalculable benefits to people’s lives, livelihoods and to society,” it said.

But the NHS Test and Trace programme, by contrast, was set up too late and “fell short of the expectations set for it”.

“It has failed to make a significant enough impact on the course of the pandemic to justify the level of public investment it received. It clearly failed on its own terms, given its aim in September to ‘avoid the need for a second lockdown’ by contributing to a reduction in the ‘R’ number,” the report said. It noted that further lockdowns would likely have been needed this summer had the vaccination programme not been as great a success.

The report also criticised the programme’s branding as an NHS initiative, when it fact it “has seen senior executives brought in from external bodies for short term contracts which reduces the institutional learning, from what was an intense period, that has been retained”.

And it raised concerns that the UK Health Security Agency, which was set up this year and has taken over responsibility for test and trace, is “opaque in its structure and organisation”.

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