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We already know how to prevent pandemics
Medical worker Jim Johnson, 32, relishes the rain on his face as he takes a break outside the triage area of the emergency department of Blackpool Victoria Hospital in Blackpool, England, on June 17, 2020. (Lynsey Addario/Getty Images)

British lawmakers have issued a scathing report about the government’s early response to the coronavirus pandemic, calling the episode “one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced.”

The report was the result of a year-long inquiry conducted by two committees of the House of Commons.

In 150 pages, it lists dozens of failures on the part of the British government that “led to many thousands of deaths which could have been avoided” — including insufficient community testing capacity, an inadequate test-and-trace system, an unwillingness to challenge scientific advice, and placing too much emphasis on avoiding lockdowns.

Although the report highlights some standout successes — chief among them the development and deployment of a homegrown coronavirus vaccine — it found that officials in charge in early 2020 as well as their scientific advisers suffered from “groupthink” and “a policy approach of fatalism.” This, the lawmakers concluded, led them to think that Britain could not realistically eliminate the virus — in practice “accepting that herd immunity by infection was the inevitable outcome.”

The “abandonment of community testing” as well as delays in implementing lockdowns and measures such as social distancing exacerbated the crisis, the inquiry found, citing former government adviser Neil Ferguson, who told the members of Parliament that if the national lockdown had been put in place even just a few days earlier, “we would have reduced the final death toll by at least a half.”

“Decisions on lockdowns and social distancing during the early weeks of the pandemic — and the advice that led to them — rank as one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced,” the lawmakers concluded, “despite the UK counting on some of the best expertise available anywhere in the world, and despite having an open, democratic system that allowed plentiful challenge.”

“Painful though it is, the UK must learn what lessons it can of why this happened if we are to ensure it is not repeated.”

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Over the course of 12 months, 22 members of Parliament from various parties who sit on the Science and Technology Committee and on the Health and Social Care Committee interviewed more than 50 witnesses, reviewed over 400 written submissions and made 38 recommendations to authorities.

The British government defended its coronavirus response, with the Cabinet Office saying in a statement to The Washington Post that the government had followed scientific guidance and “never shied away from taking quick and decisive action to save lives and protect our [National Health Service], including introducing restrictions and lockdowns” — and that its efforts prevented government-run health services from becoming overwhelmed.

“As the Prime Minister has said, we are committed to learning lessons from the pandemic and have committed to holding a full public inquiry in Spring,” the statement said.

The report says socioeconomic inequalities in British society “were exacerbated by the pandemic” and “contributed to unequal outcomes including unacceptably high death rates” in people of Black, Asian and ethnic-minority backgrounds. Community groups told lawmakers that the government did not make enough efforts to ensure its public health guidance reached those communities.

One of the recommendations in the report is for the government-run NHS to include health-care workers from Black, Asian and ethnic-minority backgrounds “in emergency planning and decision-making structures” in “any future crisis.”

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The report highlights the social care sector — an umbrella term for all forms of social services, including for the elderly in nursing homes and child care — as an especially glaring area where government mismanagement led to avoidable deaths and suffering.

The government did not prioritize, include or recognize the special public health needs of this sector in the early days of the pandemic, a deficiency in response that symbolized “a longstanding failure to afford social care the same attention as the NHS,” the report says.

A lack of information, “coupled with staff shortages, a lack of sufficient testing and [personal protective equipment], and the design of care settings to enable communal living hampered isolation and infection control, meant that some care providers were unable to respond to risks as effectively as they should,” which “had devastating and preventable repercussions for people receiving care and their families and put staff providing social care at risk,” lawmakers said.

Tens of thousands of vulnerable people have died of covid-19 in social care settings. The government has been heavily criticized for encouraging the release of patients from hospitals into nursing homes with few mitigation measures to free up hospital beds, a policy that was seen as fueling infections.

The report also points to some successes on the part of the government, including high-level faith and early investment in the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine; creativity and flexibility in research on covid-19 treatments; and strong early public health messaging.

“The United Kingdom is not alone in having suffered badly because of covid-19,” the report notes, and “comparing the experience of different countries is not straightforward.”

The report emerges as coronavirus cases in Britain are again climbing after plummeting over the summer, when schools were still closed for the summer break and people spent more time outdoors, where virus transmission is naturally lower. Infections rose more than 11 percent in the past seven days, for a total of nearly 267,000 new weekly cases.

The pandemic landscape in Britain has changed in recent months. As of Tuesday, 85 percent of the eligible population — ages 12 and over — have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. For the week ending Oct. 8, weekly coronavirus-related deaths averaged 111, compared with the peak of 1,239 deaths recorded in the week ending Jan. 21.

About 8.2 million covid-19 cases have been recorded across Britain since the start of the pandemic, and the death certificates of nearly 161,000 people have mentioned covid-19 as a cause, according to the most recent government data.

Stephen Barclay, the minister for the Cabinet Office, repeatedly refused to apologize on behalf of the government in an interview with Sky News early Tuesday. When asked about the report, which was released at midnight, Barclay said he had not yet read it.

“We followed, throughout, the scientific advice, we got the vaccine deployed extremely quickly, we protected our NHS from the surge of cases, but of course, if there are lessons to learn, we’re keen to do so,” he added.

The government has had an ambivalent response to criticism of its handling of the pandemic, with officials vacillating between apologies and defensiveness over the past few months.

When Britain in January crossed the threshold of 100,000 coronavirus deaths, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who said he almost died when he fell ill with covid-19 in 2020, said, “I’m deeply sorry for every life that has been lost, and, of course, as prime minister, I take full responsibility for everything the government has done.”

But he followed that up with what some critics viewed as an excuse: “We truly did everything we could and continue to do everything that we can.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Jan. 26 that he was "deeply sorry for every life that has been lost," as the coronavirus death toll passed 100,000. (Video: Reuters)

The question of who ultimately bears responsibility for the lives lost to the pandemic has preoccupied public opinion in Britain and other countries for months. In France, former health minister Agnès Buzyn, who was in the job only until February 2020, very early in the pandemic, was placed under formal investigation in September on allegations of “endangering the lives of others” — a controversial move viewed as the start of a broader legal probe into the French government’s response to the pandemic.

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