On 12 October the House of Commons Science & Technology and Health and Social Care Committees published their report into the UK Government’s handling of the Coronavirus Pandemic (the Report).

The Report focused on six main areas

  • the UK’s pandemic preparedness;
  • the use of border controls, social distancing and lockdowns to control the pandemic;
  • the use of test, trace and isolate;
  • the social care impact of the pandemic;
  • the impact of the pandemic on specific communities; and
  • the procurement and roll-out of covid-19 vaccines.

The Report was highly critical of the Government’s decision to delay a lockdown in the UK and failure to prioritize social care.  It found that Covid had resulted in more than 150,000 deaths in the UK, one of the world’s highest per capita tolls. The report calls the strategy to back ‘herd immunity’ and the consequent delay to implementing a lockdown “one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced.”

The main points of the Report are set out below:

  • The UK’s pandemic planning was over-focused on a ‘flu model’ which had not absorbed the lessons from SARS, MERS and Ebola.
  • The Government’s early approach involved trying to manage the spread of Covid, rather than to stop it spreading. This was effectively a policy of seeking herd immunity by infection.
  • Stopping community testing early in the pandemic was a ‘serious mistake’. This was compounded by a failure to share data effectively across the UK.
  • Testing capacity should have been increased earlier as a priority.
  • There were major deficiencies in the machinery of Government, which lacked resourcing, transparency, challenge to group think and scientific capacity.
  • UK policy changes failed to take account of emerging international best practice. This group-think attitude reflected ‘a UK-centric attitude’ which led to a lethal delay to the inevitable lockdown.
  • Given concerns about the damage a lockdown would do to the economy, other strategies should have been in place, including rigorous case isolation, a meaningful test and trace operation, and robust border controls,
  • It was a significant failure that there was no early public target for testing capacity.
  • The NHS adapted to the demands of treating Covid patients, but at the cost of continuity of care for other patients, including cancer patients, for whom the treatment was time critical.
  • The Test and Trace operation did not represent good value for money (given the ‘vast amounts’ of public money directed at it) and failed to prevent subsequent lockdowns.
  • Testing and contract tracing operations were ‘slow, uncertain and chaotic’ and their failure was compounded by over-centralisation. The report labelled this failure an “inexcusable oversight.”
  • The UK did not put in place adequate support for those in self-isolation and the requirement for contacts to remain in isolation, even if they tested negative, led to lower compliance.
  • Inadequate attention was paid to the risks to the social care sector. Staff shortages, a lack of sufficient testing and PPE, and the structure of many residential care buildings (which provide for communal living facilities) hampered isolation and infection control, leading to unnecessarily high deaths in the sector.
  • The rapid discharge of elderly patients from hospitals to care homes without adequate testing or rigorous isolation was a mistake and it led to ‘many thousands of deaths which could have been avoided’.
  • Ministers were unjustifiably optimistic in the summer of 2020 that the worst was over.
  • Social, economic and health inequalities were exacerbated by the pandemic and contributed to unequal outcomes including unacceptably high death rates amongst people from BAME communities.
  • The pandemic also highlighted the health inequalities faced by people with learning disabilities and autistic people. The high death-rate amongst this community was partly caused by inadequate access to the care as a result of restrictions on non-covid hospital activity. Unacceptable “Do not attempt CPR” notices were routinely issued for people with learning disabilities.

The Report was did note some positives, including: the success of the UK’s vaccine taskforce and vaccine rollout was efficient; the rapid development of effective trials treatments and global sharing of the results; the flexibility of the NHS in adapting to the demands of treating the virus; and the effective performance of the UK’s MHRA and JCVI (including the innovation of allowing the results of clinical trials to be submitted on a rolling basis and extending the interval between doses, which allowed more people to be vaccinated more quickly).

The Report noted the lessons to be drawn from the contrast between the effectiveness of the vaccines programme which relied on “effective collaboration between public and private sectors and research institutions” and the Test and Trace programme which followed a centralised model that rejected assistance from universities and other laboratories outside Public Health England and failed to use local public health teams effectively to trace contacts.

Comment:

The Joint Committee’s Report was the first of a number of reports which will look into the UK Government’s handling of the pandemic (including the Public Inquiry that the UK Government has repeatedly promised, but not yet set up). The conclusions and evidence that the Joint Committee drew and received will be made available to future Inquiries, which are also likely to focus on the same or similar areas.

Companies operating in these areas should consider whether they are likely to be called to give evidence to the future Public Inquiry and should ensure they are properly prepared for giving evidence to such an inquiry.

Covington’s mixed legal and public policy teams have significant expertise in helping companies prepare for such appearances and would be delighted to work with your company if you consider you are likely to be called to give evidence.

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Photo of Thomas Reilly Thomas Reilly

Ambassador Thomas Reilly, Covington’s Head of UK Public Policy and a key member of the firm’s Global Problem Solving Group and Brexit Task Force, draws on over 20 years of diplomatic and commercial roles to advise clients on their strategic business objectives.

Ambassador…

Ambassador Thomas Reilly, Covington’s Head of UK Public Policy and a key member of the firm’s Global Problem Solving Group and Brexit Task Force, draws on over 20 years of diplomatic and commercial roles to advise clients on their strategic business objectives.

Ambassador Reilly was most recently British Ambassador to Morocco between 2017 and 2020, and prior to this, the Senior Advisor on International Government Relations & Regulatory Affairs and Head of Government Relations at Royal Dutch Shell between 2012 and 2017. His former roles with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office included British Ambassador Morocco & Mauritania (2017-2018), Deputy Head of Mission at the British Embassy in Egypt (2010-2012), Deputy Head of the Climate Change & Energy Department (2007-2009), and Deputy Head of the Counter Terrorism Department (2005-2007). He has lived or worked in a number of countries including Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Argentina.

At Covington, Ambassador Reilly works closely with our global team of lawyers and investigators as well as over 100 former diplomats and senior government officials, with significant depth of experience in dealing with the types of complex problems that involve both legal and governmental institutions.

Ambassador Reilly started his career as a solicitor specialising in EU and commercial law but no longer practices as a solicitor.