Even as the world grappled with how to respond to coronavirus early last year, the UK’s bungled efforts held a grim fascination for many other countries. A nation that is one of the world’s most mature democracies and prided itself on the quality of its governance ended up with one of the highest death tolls per capita of any big economy, its fumbling equalled perhaps only by the US. The first official report into what went wrong, a joint inquiry by two MPs’ committees, sheds valuable, if damning, light. It holds lessons not just for Britain but for others on how better to confront future health emergencies.
One is to maintain constant readiness, but also to prepare for the right risks. Though this was not the fault of Boris Johnson’s Conservative government but previous administrations, the NHS had been starved of resources such as ventilators and intensive care beds. The UK lacked supplies of protective clothing, and effective test-and-trace protocols to contain an outbreak. Its pandemic planning failed to learn from Sars, Mers and Ebola — notably on the dangers of novel diseases spreading from animals — and was based too inflexibly on the assumption that the next pandemic would be flu or something similar.
Once the pandemic came, the report’s central insight can be summarised thus: the Johnson government “followed the science” so unquestioningly that politicians and scientists fell prey to a form of groupthink — and the groupthink was fatalistic, and flawed.
Mechanisms for offering scientific advice were insular, secretive and lacked external challenge. Above all, they took not nearly enough account of approaches elsewhere, such as the most strenuous containment efforts by east Asian countries. All but one of the 87 people who took part in at least one meeting of the government’s Scientific Advisories Group for Emergencies were from UK institutions.
Though other countries in Europe and North America initially adopted a similarly “fatalistic” approach, the report says UK ministers accepted for too long the notion that the virus could not be effectively suppressed, and the population would not tolerate a lengthy lockdown. This amounted in practice to accepting that herd immunity, though not the official goal, was the inevitable outcome. When the UK strategy did change dramatically, and belatedly in late March 2020, to accept the need for a lockdown, this was because of “domestic concerns that the NHS could be overwhelmed” rather than a serious decision to follow emerging international best practice.
The MPs’ committee rightly contrasts the flaws of the initial handling with the success of the UK’s vaccination programme. Britain, it notes, was early to invest in vaccine research. Allowing results of clinical trials to be submitted on a rolling basis enabled it to be the first western country to approve a vaccine. Unlike the over-centralised, long-misfiring and hugely expensive test-and-trace programme, the vaccine rollout — the fastest in its early stages of any large economy — drew on established local networks.
For all its insights, this report cannot substitute for the full public inquiry Johnson has promised once Covid has passed. Its most important implication is that, in hindsight, the most effective response would have been to combine the Asia-Pacific approach — border restrictions, lockdowns, and strenuous test-and-trace to suppress infection — and the western focus on swift vaccinations once available. Most large economies fell down on one side of this two-sided approach. For those like the UK that fumbled the former, however, the cost in lives has been far higher.