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Parliamentary report says UK mistakes cost thousands of lives during pandemic

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LONDON — Delaying a lockdown in the U.K. and failing to prioritize social care caused thousands of avoidable deaths, according to a parliamentary report on lessons learned to date from the coronavirus pandemic.

The joint investigation published Tuesday by the House of Commons’ science and health committees is lawmakers’ first stab at digging into why the U.K., which was initially praised for its pandemic preparedness planning, saw cases skyrocket and deaths far outnumber many comparable countries. To date, deaths associated with the coronavirus in the U.K. stand at more than 150,000, placing the country in the Top 10 worldwide for total fatalities, according to World Health Organization data.

The joint report noted that while some initiatives were examples of global best practices, others represented serious mistakes.

The report praised the “remarkable” achievement of the National Health Service in expanding ventilator and intensive care capacity, and underscores the success of the Vaccines Task Force in quickly delivering life-saving vaccines, which were rolled out at speed. The country’s clinical trials testing for COVID-19 treatments have also been “world-leading,” it said.

But delaying decisive action to impose a stay-at-home order “reflected a fatalism about the spread of COVID that should have been robustly challenged at the time,” the committees said.

In “accepting that herd immunity by infection was the inevitable outcome,” the report said the U.K. made a “serious early error in adopting this fatalistic approach” and not considering a rigorous targeted public health approach to stop the spread of the virus, as adopted by many East and Southeast Asian countries.

“The U.K. response has combined some big achievements with some big mistakes,” said health committee Chair Jeremy Hunt and science committee Chair Greg Clark — both members of the governing Conservative Party — in a statement. “It is vital to learn from both to ensure that we perform as best as we possibly can during the remainder of the pandemic and in the future.”

The 150-page report is based on evidence from more than 50 individuals, among them former Health Secretary Matt Hancock, former No. 10 adviser Dominic Cummings, Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance and England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty.

There were areas where despite technological advances, the U.K. failed to capitalize, it found. For example, the country was one of the first in the world to develop a test for the coronavirus, but failed to translate it into an effective test and trace system.

In fact, “the slow, uncertain, and often chaotic performance of the test, trace and isolate system severely hampered the U.K.’s response to the pandemic,” the report stated.

Initiating a centralized test and trace model, as opposed to using local public health experts, was a big error, it found.

“Directors of public health and their teams, working in councils, know their areas best,” said David Fothergill, chair of the community wellbeing board for the Local Government Association, who also noted such officials were “eventually” brought in to assist the national test and trace system.

When the national government suspended routine, symptomatic COVID testing of members of the public early in the pandemic, it cut short its ability to analyze the epidemiology of the virus and its wealth of data experts had no data to interrogate, leaving the ship rudderless.

The report also pointed to what it said were numerous mistakes in social care, from a lack of scientific advice early on, to a failure to prioritize PPE for its staff, to the rapid discharge of patients from hospitals back into homes, without proper testing.

Combined, these led to “many thousands of deaths which could have been avoided,” lawmakers said.

They added that social and economic health inequalities were exacerbated by the pandemic, noting “unacceptably high death rates amongst people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities.” The same was true for people with learning difficulties.

Considerations for people with learning disabilities and autistic people “have been an ‘afterthought,’” said Michael Absoud, an honorary reader at the Department of Women and Children’s Health at King’s College London. “The disproportionately high mortality rate for autistic people and those with learning disabilities is a reflection of historical and ongoing huge gaps in access to care.”

Penny Ward, an independent pharmaceutical physician and visiting professor at King’s College London, argued the “report is self-congratulatory on the ‘success’ of the vaccine and of the foresight of the Vaccines Task Force.

“However, we have failed to ensure sufficient uptake of the vaccination among younger adults and teenagers and some higher risk communities,” she said, “most notably those of African heritage — which is at least one possible reason for the continued circulation of infection resulting in more than 700 hospitalizations and 100 deaths daily on average in the U.K. currently.”

She also pointed out that the U.K. has failed to introduce any antivirals to treat COVID-19 and has limited access to monoclonal antibody therapies, which could save many more lives if made widely available.

The report contained 38 recommendations for the government, from the U.K. coordinating international resilience planning, including reform of the World Health Organization; to allowing immediate data flows between relevant bodies; to giving the Armed Forces a more central role.

Separately, the government has also committed to launching a full public inquiry into the mistakes made in its handling of the pandemic; the evidence gathered by the committees will be available to that inquiry.

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