A cross-party group of politicians has called the British government’s initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic “one of most important public health failures the UK has ever experienced.”
In a report published Tuesday, titled “Coronavirus: Lessons learned to date,” the group took aim at the government’s decision to delay going into national lockdown (which eventually happened on March 23, 2020), while the pandemic spread around the world, which the MPs said led to thousands of deaths.
Other major issues included the delays and inadequacies of the “Test and Trace” system that made it harder to understand and control the spread of the virus in the community, despite being one of the first countries in the world to develop a test for COVID-19, the group said.
Underlying “health, social, and economic inequalities” were also targeted by the MPs as needing to be addressed, as Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) communities were hit particularly hard by the pandemic — something the government must address in its “levelling up” agenda going forward, they said.
Their damning report is the result of a year-long inquiry into how the pandemic has been managed. The 150-page document was produced by MPs from across the political spectrum who make up the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee, and the Science and Technology Committee.
The health committee Chair Jeremy Hunt, a former health secretary, described the vaccine roll-out as “boldly planned and effectively executed.”
But the committee described the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black and Asian communities in Britain, who experienced a higher death rate, data from the first few months of the pandemic showed, as “unacceptable."
“Increased exposure to COVID-19 as a result of people’s housing and working conditions played a significant role,” the report said.
“We also heard that Black, Asian, and minority ethnic staff in the NHS, who are underrepresented in leadership and management roles, faced greater difficulty in accessing the appropriate and useable Personal Protective Equipment (PPE),” it continued.
That finding is particularly shocking, as the first 10 health care workers to die from COVID-19 in the UK were Black or Asian, and by the end of May 2020 research showed that 6 in 10 health workers who had died were from ethnic minority groups.
The report said that these findings mean an “urgent and long-term strategy to tackle health inequalities” is needed, including specific policies in the government’s forward-facing plans to recover from the pandemic, dubbed the “levelling up” agenda.
Another recommendation is that “in any future crisis, NHS staff from Black, Asian, and minority ethnic backgrounds are included in emergency planning and decision-making structures."
The committee also touched on the experience of people with disabilities and argued that blanket restrictions to hospital access meant many people with disabilities were unable to access care accompanied by family members or carers who could advocate for their care during the pandemic. It concluded that “do not resuscitate” orders were used inappropriately for this group.
The report additionally noted that care homes were not properly factored into decision-making, and thousands of deaths occurred as a result of older people being discharged too quickly from hospitals back to care homes, bringing COVID-19 with them.
Other general recommendations from the inquiry’s report include comprehensive government plans for future emergencies, a bigger role for the armed forces in emergency response plans, and a possible government and NHS volunteer reserve database.
In response to the findings, Lobby Akinnola, a scientist whose father died of COVID-19 and who now represents the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign group, said that a full public inquiry into what happened, which is expected next year, “couldn’t come soon enough.”
In an interview with the i paper, he said: “When I look at the report and read the data on the effects of COVID-19 on people of colour, I know my Black, 60-year-old, male, carer father never stood a chance.
“It felt like the virus came for him, but there’s no biological reason for my dad to be vulnerable. We are looking at generations of societal inequalities,” Akinnola continued. “I want an inquiry to root out why people of colour have ended up at this place. We need to know the solutions are there to make sure this never happens again,” he added.
The Cabinet Office minister Stephen Barclay said in response to the report that “scientific advice had been followed and the government had made difficult judgements to protect the NHS,” according to the BBC.
He added that the government took responsibility for everything that happened and said the government would not shy away from any lessons to be learned at the full statutory public inquiry.