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MP's Covid report finds UK Government guilty

A recent parliamentary report has uncovered government errors which led to thousands of extra Covid-19 deaths

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Just short of a year ago, I wrote an article for Nouse on the Government’s newly introduced Christmas plans and their implications, largely focused on the introduction of the (thankfully) short-lived tier system. A year down the line, with what seems to be the worst of the pandemic in our rear view mirror, a parliamentary report has been released outlining why the Government’s initial response to Covid-19 was one of the most extreme public health failures in British history.

The crux of the report, titled ‘Coronavirus: Lessons Learned to Date’, is essentially that multiple, erroneous governmental decisions relating to the pandemic resulted from incompetencies in leadership. Included in this list of fatal flaws are the hesitant introduction of lockdown one, the discharging of untested hospital patients into care homes and the rollout of an ineffective test-and-trace system, among many others. A significant feature of the poor leadership which led to these errors is what’s being referred to as a “groupthink” style of decision-making, which effectively suggests that group decisions regarding the Government’s response were not properly scrutinised before being put into effect.

Another focus of the report was on the lack of transparency in sharing Covid-19 data which led to the making of key decisions, which the MPs argue diminished public confidence. Data concerning the rate of the virus’ spread as well as the nature of asymptomatic transmission was not given to authorities in the early stages. Further to this, insufficient data on the impact of Covid-19 among BAME communities is mentioned, which is especially poor given the exceptionally high death rates among people from these backgrounds.

These points only begin to scratch the surface of the shortfalls uncovered by this report, but an important point needs to be made regarding the common defence among government apologists. Those defending the UK Government’s handling of the pandemic in public discourse often fall back on the all-to-easy get out of jail free card that is: “how could anyone have been prepared for a pandemic of this magnitude?”. Although there is a point to be made about the lack of scientific knowledge regarding the initial spread of the virus, and indeed about the desire to avoid unnecessary mass panic, I don’t see the logic in this defence. Governments are elected in order to lead a country, and a  significant part of this role is to take control in the event of emergencies. In the grand scheme of history, pandemics happen relatively regularly. I would understand this point if, perhaps, it were an alien invasion or a zombie apocalypse we were dealing with as opposed to a pandemic, but while neither of those things have ever actually happened (as far as I’m aware) we have suffered pandemics aplenty; Influenza, Cholera, SARS and MERS in the last 100 years alone, and that’s just to name a few of the big ones.

It’s highlighted in the report that the Government’s pandemic plan was hugely short-sighted, based on an out-dated flu model despite the knowledge we’ve gained following Ebola and the other outbreaks mentioned above. Despite this, back at the emergence of the virus, then Health Secretary Matt Hancock told MPs in his infinite wisdom that the UK is “well-prepared for these types of outbreaks”, which with hindsight seems to be a fairly exaggerated claim.

Even if we cut the Government some slack and accept that they weren’t to know how severely Covid-19 would affect us, it’s hard to ignore the naivety of their deliberately “slow and gradualist approach”, especially given the speed at which other European countries commenced their respective lockdowns. The report suggests that, despite the denial of government officials, the initial school of thought among government scientists was to pursue “herd immunity” by infection, which consequently led to this slow introduction of Covid-19 measures. Many voices are attributing the fact that the UK has the second largest Covid-related death toll in Europe to this very error.

So, an estimated 20,000 “unnecessary” deaths later, many of which can be directly linked back to these flawed governmental decisions, you might think that an official public apology was in order. Well, it would seem Cabinet Office minister Stephen Barclay disagrees. In an interview with Sky News, Barclay refused to apologise on numerous occasions despite accepting the report’s attribution of 20,000 premature deaths to government failures, instead deflecting the point by repeatedly stating “if there are lessons to learn we're keen to do so”. It is not the sentiment of this statement with which I have a problem, but rather the “if ”. Given what’s already been said about the Government’s failure to learn from previous pandemics, I would find it reassuring if officials could acknowledge the need to learn lessons relatively urgently this time around.

In my article last year I was dubious, to say the least, about the situation leading into Christmas, but I did not think for a moment that a year on we would still be uncovering hidden errors in government leadership to the tune of thousands of extra deaths. This report may well just be the beginning of such discoveries, but I can only hope that those who have suffered as a result of these shortcomings find some solace in seeing the Government held to account.

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