The British government’s dithering in the crucial early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic ended up costing thousands of people their lives, according to an excoriating new report from lawmakers on how the U.K. has handled the COVID-19 crisis.
The report, published on Tuesday, states that, if Johnson’s government had introduced a lockdown just one week earlier than it did, Britain’s death toll could have been slashed in half. However, the lawmakers concluded that a dangerous level of “groupthink” in the top level of government and its advisers got in the way of decisive action.
To date, the U.K. has recorded more than 150,000 coronavirus deaths—second only to Russia among European nations. The new report is the first official attempt to explain why Britain suffered worse than others.
The report states that the delay in imposing the first lockdown and social distancing measures during the early weeks of the pandemic “rank as one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced.” It stresses: “This happened despite the U.K. counting on some of the best expertise available anywhere in the world.”
The lawmakers note that there was a two month gap between the first time the government’s scientific advisers met to discuss the COVID crisis and Johnson’s announcement of the first lockdown in March 2020. Weeks later, Johnson was landed in intensive care with the disease.
The members of parliament go on to conclude that the government’s “slow and gradualist” initial approach to the pandemic was to blame for the U.K. faring “significantly worse” than similar nations, stating: “It is now clear that this was the wrong policy, and that it led to a higher initial death toll than would have resulted from a more emphatic early policy.”
The government has attempted to defend itself from the report, accusing the lawmakers of relying on the benefit of hindsight. “It was an unprecedented pandemic,” minister Stephen Barclay told Sky News. “We were learning about it as we went through, and of course with hindsight, there’s things we know about it now that we didn’t know at the time.”
Coincidentally, Johnson is on holiday in Spain this week so has not been available to answer questions about the report’s conclusions.
Jeremy Hunt, who was Britain’s Conservative health secretary from 2012 to 2018 and chairs one of the committees that prepared the report, told ITV’s “Good Morning Britain” it’s clear that U.K. should have locked down sooner. “The prime minister is of course ultimately responsible, but some of the advice that he got was also wrong,” said the member of parliament.
The lawmakers did have some positive words for the U.K. government—particularly the successful vaccination rollout, which has seen almost 80 percent of people over 12 get fully vaccinated as of mid-October. “Millions of lives will ultimately be saved as a result of the global vaccine effort in which the U.K. has played a leading part,” the report says.
However, the document concludes that Britain—as well as “other countries in Europe and North America”—made a “serious early error” in the pandemic by adopting what it called a “fatalistic approach,” and tells the government that “crucial lessons” must be learned for the future.