Ministers and top officials knew a lockdown was likely to be needed to tackle the spread of Covid early in 2020, but failed to put in place the preparations needed to “pull the trigger” on introducing them at short notice, government’s former top scientist has said.
The operational failure to prepare lockdown or test and trace measures early on delayed the implementation of these measures when it became apparent they were needed, Sir Patrick Vallance told the Covid Inquiry this morning.
The former government chief scientific adviser noted that plans for introducing so-called non-pharmaceutical interventions – such as lockdowns or social distancing – had been described “quite early on” when officials were monitoring the spread of the novel coronavirus in early 2020.
During February 2020, he said, “there was lots of evidence that there were things that needed to happen in order to achieve suppressing the curve”. Rather than whether a lockdown would be needed at all, “the question was when and how much to do it,” he said.
But he said this understanding “unfortunately wasn't mirrored by an operational readiness”.
“The bit that I think is missing is whether the operational development of plans to do that, at short notice, were as advanced as they should have been – and they weren't,” he added.
He told the inquiry: “There should have been an operational plan to have those ready to pull the trigger on as soon as they were needed. And what we see is it takes quite a long time to get those actually working and to get the process in place to do that.
“I think that is a sort of learnable lesson that you should start earlier.”
He said former MI5 chief Sir Andrew Parker had introduced measures to protect his organisation in early February. Appearing on a Royal Society of Medicine webinar this summer, Parker said he had acted when Vallance and chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty had warned that “prospects were high and strong” that Covid could develop into a pandemic.
Nodding to Parker’s preparations, Vallance told the inquiry: “I'm not sure that that urgency of action was as consistent and as reliable as it should have been across Whitehall at that time.”
He said data that emerged in mid-March that showed “clearly that we were much further ahead” and that the introduction of NPIs were”likely to be needed urgently than anyone realised”.
By the weekend of 14-15 March, he said there was an “urgent recognition that this was an imminent problem of the NHS collapsing, not something that was weeks away with the possibility of introducing measures at a more leisurely rate”.
“So that weekend was an intense acceleration, and indeed intensification, of the measures that were required to stop this,” he said.
On 16 March 2020, then-prime minister Boris Johnson made an announcement about Covid saying: "Now is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact and travel."
But first lockdown did not begin until 23 March, when Johnson ordered people to "stay home".
Vallance said the weekend of 14-15 March had seen "in principle, a decision that all of these measures would be needed".
"And I think it would have been sensible to have got on and done those as quickly as possible," he told the inquiry.
He said some of the delay may have been down to legal requirements underpinning the Covid restrictions, which he described as "very significant".
"That took another week or 10 days for that to be in place," he said.