Why we need a full inquiry into how UK dealt with Covid

Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the first lockdown a year ago. - Credit: PA

As we reach the anniversary of the first lockdown, it is right to look back on what has happened - and it is vital that this country should have a full inquiry to learn the lessons of the Covid crisis and make sure we are better prepared in the future.

During the early months of the crisis there were major blunders which may have cost tens of thousands of lives - but also some successes that probably saved others.

And at all stages of the crisis decisions were made that an inquiry needs to consider to work out if they really were in the best interests of the public.

What went wrong?

There is no doubt that at the start of 2020, the UK was hopelessly ill-prepared for the Covid pandemic. The NHS had nowhere near enough stocks of PPE. And ministers who were concentrating on Brexit and on celebrations to mark the UK's departure from the EU seemingly didn't see the events that were already starting to unfold in Wuhan in China on their radar.

Health workers in PPE

The NHS was very short of PPE at the start of the pandemic - Credit: PA

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While there were pictures of people gasping for death in hospital corridors in Italy, the official advice from the government didn't extend beyond "Wash your hands for 20 seconds regularly."

Experts now believe the delayed lockdown may have cost tens of thousands of lives - but during the run-up to March last year many of the government advisors were trying to push the message that people should stay calm and basic precautions should be sufficient.

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Part of the problem was that emergency planning had seen flu as the big threat. They hadn't looked at a Coronavirus illness like Covid, which was similar to SARS and MERS diseases that had caused concern in Asia in the early years of the century.

In the summer were we lulled into a false sense of security? As numbers fell, people jetted off on holiday as normal. The Eat Out to Help Out scheme encouraged people to go to restaurants and pubs. 

During September, with numbers starting to take off, some members of the SAGE committee urged the government to impose a two-week "circuit-breaker" to try to slow down transmission. Should it have gone ahead? Would it have had any effect anyway?

What did the government get right?

Setting up a vaccines taskforce, signing deals with manufacturers and organising vaccine centres looks like the major success of the government's response. Almost all the most vulnerable groups in the UK have had at least one vaccination - and despite supply issues the government is convinced all adults will be inoculated by July.

A Covid vaccination being given in Lavenham

The vaccination programme has been a big success in the UK. - Credit: Charlotte Bond

Earlier during the pandemic the establishment of the Nightingale Hospitals - many of which were never used - and sourcing of ventilation and oxygen equipment from different sources meant that while there was massive pressure on the NHS, we didn't have the level of crisis seen in some other countries like Italy and Spain.

The financial support for companies with schemes like furlough have managed to keep millions of people off the dole - but the economic impact of the crisis is likely to last for decades as taxpayers have to pay off a National Debt that has been increased because of the Covid measures.

Changes to society:

Any inquiry into how the country coped with the Covid crisis will have to look at its long-term impact on society - some areas of life have changed for ever because of the pandemic, or at least changes already in hand have been accelerated.

More people are likely to spend more time working at home - many office-based businesses are already making plans to have home or hybrid working in the future rather than the traditional way of working  - the number of commuters is unlikely to recover to pre-pandemic levels for years if not decades.

Town centres, retailing and hospitality is likely to change for good. People have got used to mail order shopping and eating takeaway or delivery meals. While many will be delighted to get back to restaurants and traditional shops, the new habits will probably remain for some customers.

How does Britain compare to other countries?

The last 12 months have been a rollercoaster for countries around the world as they came to grips with the biggest crisis they had faced since the Second World War.

In Britain there was real concern during the first nine months of the pandemic - with death rates higher than almost all similar countries - but since the turn of the year the UK has started to look like a beacon of hope with the hugely successful vaccine roll-out.

Comparing international death rates is always problematic because different countries use different measures to record cases and mortality - so there will always be some level of subjectivity required when making comparisons.

The American John Hopkins University has been seen by most experts as the leading world statistical authority on the effect of the pandemic and it uses two figures to judge the number of deaths: the proportion of deaths from Covid against the number of cases, and the number of deaths per 100,000 population.

On both of these, the UK is near the top of the "league table" with 2.9% of cases resulting in death and 190 deaths per 100,000 population. However during the early months of the pandemic testing in all countries, especially the UK, was very patchy - and as it later emerged there were many more cases of asymptomatic Covid many more people than those officially recorded may have had the disease.

It is also clear that many of those who died were elderly and/or extremely frail and may have died within weeks or months anyway. What is a more accurate is the excess deaths data - the number of people who died above the long-term average in the country.

The figures for 2020 run until December 20 and show the country had 7.2% more deaths than the five-year average in 2020 - one of the highest figures among western countries, but not at the top of the list. 

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