Boris Johnson’s U.K. government made serious mistakes in its early handling of the coronavirus pandemic and should have imposed a full lockdown more quickly, a move that would have saved many lives, a parliamentary inquiry found.
In a sharply critical joint report released Tuesday, the health and social care committee and science and technology committee said the U.K. had adopted a “fatalistic approach” to Covid-19 in early 2020, failing to learn from East Asian countries that halted the spread of the virus using swift lockdowns and mass testing.
Instead, the U.K. effectively accepted “that herd immunity by infection was the inevitable outcome,” the committee said. That decision meant the virus was allowed to spread through the population before lockdown eventually began on March 23, 2020, the report said. The government denies that herd immunity has ever been part of its pandemic strategy.
But the MPs said: “It is now clear that this was the wrong policy, and that it led to a higher initial death toll than would have resulted from a more emphatic early policy.”
The findings add to pressure on Prime Minister Johnson over his pandemic decision-making, ahead of a major public inquiry due to start next spring. A spokesman said the government “never shied away from taking quick and decisive action” during the pandemic.
Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay repeatedly declined to apologize when asked about the findings of the report on Tuesday, saying the government had acted on the best information at the time.
“We followed the scientific advice,” Barclay told Sky News. “We’ve always said that with something as unprecedented as the pandemic there are lessons to learn, and we’re keen to learn them.”
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called the publication a “damning report” documenting “monumental errors.”
The U.K.’s Covid death toll in 2020 was “significantly worse” than many countries, in particular in comparison to Asian nations closer to where the virus first appeared, the report said. To date the U.K. has recorded 137,000 fatalities, the most in Western Europe.
Leading epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College London, told the science committee in June 2020 that deaths would have been reduced by at least half if the national lockdown had been brought in even one week earlier.
The committees concluded that it was a “serious mistake” to halt widespread testing in March 2020 — a decision attributed to to a lack of capacity. As a result contacts could not be traced and accurately monitoring the spread of the virus across the country became impossible.
“The U.K. was reduced to understanding the spread of Covid-19 by waiting for people to be so sick that they needed to be admitted to hospital,” the report said. Large-scale testing only resumed in mid-May 2020.
The test, trace and isolate system — with a budget of 37 billion pounds ($50.4 billion) — was “slow, uncertain and often chaotic” throughout the first year of the pandemic, the committee found, and this “severely hampered” the U.K. response. It “ultimately failed” in its objective to prevent future lockdowns despite its “vast” budget, the report concluded.
The MPs also criticized the decision to allow elderly people to be discharged from hospitals into care homes in the initial phase of the pandemic without “the rigor shown in places like Germany and Hong Kong.”
“This, combined with untested staff bringing infection into homes from the community, led to many thousands of deaths which could have been avoided,” the report said.
The committee did praise the government for its successes, including early backing for vaccines as a route out of the pandemic, and the U.K.’s “genuinely world-leading” rollout of Covid-19 treatments.
The report is one of the highest-profile examinations of the pandemic carried out to date. Lawsuits in France and Austria, plus an inquiry in Italy, are also focusing on the early days of the pandemic.