THE joint report Coronavirus: lessons learned to date by Westminster’s science and technology committee and health and social care committee is so damning that one has to wonder if it was deliberately held back until after the Conservative Party conference and until Boris Johnson could be away on holiday to avoid the flak.
While the report is principally about the response to the pandemic in England it states clearly: “The UK’s pandemic planning was too narrowly and inflexibly based on a flu model which failed to learn the lessons from Sars, Mers and Ebola.”
Furthermore, when the government moved from the “contain” stage to the “delay” stage, it simply tried to manage the spread of Covid rather than stop it altogether, which “amounted in practice to accepting that herd immunity by infection was the inevitable outcome.”
Characterising this (charitably) as “a serious early error,” the report says that there was “a degree of groupthink” between official scientific advisers and the government, “which meant we were not as open to approaches being taken elsewhere as we should have been” — in the Far East in particular.
Why would such groupthink exist? The report does not say. But scientists can be influenced by political judgements. We must conclude that the majority of the government’s hand-picked official scientific advisers had already bought in to the ruling class’s position of the need to protect business interests.
The report also says that it was “a serious mistake to get to the point where community testing was stopped early in the pandemic.” There were failures of national public bodies to share such data as was available, failures by ministers to increase testing capacity and major deficiencies in the machinery of government.
While the report does not state it explicitly, that amounts to a failure to follow the World Health Organisation guidelines of “Find, test, trace, isolate and support.”
Observing that the government wanted to avoid a lockdown “because of the immense harm it would entail to the economy, normal health services and society,” the report makes clear that lockdown became inevitable in the absence of other strategies such as “rigorous case isolation, a meaningful test-and-trace operation and robust border controls” and should have come sooner.
Furthermore, “the government and the NHS both failed adequately to recognise the significant risks to the social care sector at the beginning of the pandemic.” Staff shortages, lack of sufficient testing and PPE, the design of care settings and the discharge of people from hospitals into care homes “led to many thousands of deaths which could have been avoided.”
As we have said previously in this column, the government’s failure to act amounted to criminal negligence. At the Tory conference, Johnson made no reference to the terrible loss of life, instead pointing to the success of the vaccination programme. Following equivocal statements by Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay and science minister George Freeman, Tory chairman Oliver Dowden was today forced to say that both he and Johnson were sorry for the deaths.
Johnson has said sorry before, but actions speak louder than words. With reported daily new cases still around 38,000 — largely driven by the 5-15 age group and their families — deaths at around 800 per week and with around 640,000 people experiencing Long Covid symptoms, it is clear that the pandemic has not gone away and the government is following the same strategy.
Vaccination does not give lifetime immunity. It does lessen the symptoms and reduce the spread, but it’s not a panacea. As Independent Sage argued recently, we need a nine-point Covid winter protection plan and a new approach to ventilation and filtration in buildings.
Failure to restrict circulation of the virus raises the risk of new variants appearing. That may already have happened, given recent reports of negative PCR tests after positive lateral flow tests.
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