COVID-19: Minister refuses to apologise for government’s pandemic handling as report says errors ‘cost thousands of lives’

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A minister has refused to apologise 11 times for the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, after a highly-critical report by MPs said thousands of lives were lost due to delays and mistakes by both ministers and their scientific advisers.

“We followed, throughout, the scientific advice. We got the vaccine deployed extremely quickly, we protected our NHS from the surge of cases,” Cabinet Office minister Stephen Barclay told Sky News’ Kay Burley when she asked if the government would apologise.

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“Of course, if there are lessons to learn we’re keen to do so.”

Asked again by Kay Burley if he would be apologising in the wake of the report, Mr Barclay replied: “Well no, we followed the scientific advice, we protected the NHS, we took the decisions based on the evidence before us.

“But of course, we’ve always said with something so unprecedented as the pandemic, there will be lessons to learn, we’re keen to learn them.”

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Mr Barclay, who said he had not yet read the damning report, asserted the decision on when to introduce the first national lockdown was “based on the scientific advice at the time” and rejected the suggestion that ministers did not scrutinise the advice from scientific advisers thoroughly enough.

“I think there was rigorous debate in government with [the] science. But of course it was unprecedented, so it was a developing picture for the scientists themselves,” Mr Barclay said.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said earlier this year that he took “full responsibility for everything that has happened” and was “truly sorry for the suffering the people of this country have experienced”.

Since the pandemic began, there have been more than 160,000 fatalities recorded in the UK where COVID-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, while there have been over 137,000 deaths recorded within 28 days of a positive test.

The UK has the second-largest coronavirus-related death toll in Europe, surpassed only by Russia.

The report’s key findings

The UK’s preparations for a pandemic were too focused on flu, “groupthink” among public health officials meant early opportunities to delay the spread of the virus were missed and it was a “serious early error” not to introduce the first national lockdown sooner, the report from the cross-party science and technology committee and the health and social care committee said.

According to MPs, “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”.

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Other key findings of the report include:

• The decision to abandon testing for COVID in the community early on was a mistake that “cost many lives”

• Failing to prioritise social care and discharging people from hospitals into care homes “led to many thousands of deaths”

• Robust border controls were needed sooner

• There were “serious deficiencies” in communication within government and between central and local government.

It found that while “herd immunity” was never a policy objective, the idea was pervasive among scientific advisers early on in the pandemic.

This “fatalistic” attitude should have been challenged by officials and helped precipitate other errors.

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March 2020: Italy’s COVID crisis

Likewise, a failure to believe that the British public would accept lockdown helped delay one from being implemented, despite evidence that the NHS was going to be overwhelmed with cases.

But the report also praised key elements of the pandemic response, including the decision to pre-order vaccines even before trials had proved their effectiveness.

MPs also praised the ability of the NHS to absorb the pressures COVID placed on it and the rapid deployment of Nightingale hospitals.

The joint inquiry began last October and interviewed more than 50 witnesses including former health secretary Matt Hancock, Chief Scientist Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty and former Number 10 adviser Dominic Cummings.

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May 2021: Cummings says sorry: ‘We failed the public’

‘We have a joke prime minister’

Asked if the country locked down too late, Mr Cummings said: “I think I’ve said lots of things about all that already.”

“The government system for dealing with crises is a disaster, as I wrote in 2019. Again, I explained all that when I spoke to the MPs,” he added, speaking outside his home on Tuesday.

“The system was bad for many years before COVID. Me and others put into place work to try and improve the system in 2020 after the first wave. Unfortunately the prime minister being the joke that he is has not pushed that work through.

“Now we have a joke prime minister and a joke leader of the Labour Party and we obviously need a new political system.”

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Cummings calls PM ‘joke’ over COVID handling

Challenge to scientific advice ‘should have happened earlier’

“We know that some of that scientific advice was wrong, but also that politicians should have challenged that advice,” Jeremy Hunt, chair of the health select committee, told Sky News.

“You can’t just say ‘we’re following the science’ – you have to dig down and ask why scientists are saying what they’re saying. That challenge should have happened earlier.”

But a campaign group for bereaved relatives of those who died during the pandemic has dismissed the report as “laughable” and labelled it an “an attempt to ignore and gaslight bereaved families, who will see it as a slap in the face”.

Hannah Brady, spokesperson for the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, hit out at a paragraph in the report which said the “success of the vaccine programme has redeemed many of the persistent failings of other parts of the national response such as the test and trace system, so that the outcome is far better than would have been the case without this success”.

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August 2021: Bereaved families on COVID-19 inquiry

She said: “What a surprise: a committee led by the previous health secretary and which exclusively spoke to his friends in government, found that the deaths of 150,000 people were ‘redeemed’ by the vaccine rollout.”

She said the report “manages to barely mention the over 150,000 bereaved families”, adding: “Sadly, this is what we expected, as the committee explicitly refused to speak to us or any bereaved families, instead insisting they were only interested in speaking to their colleagues and friends.”

A government spokesperson said in response to the report: “Throughout the pandemic we have been guided by the scientific and medical experts and we never shied away from taking quick and decisive action.

“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.”

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