UK’s handling of pandemic labelled ‘system failure’ by public health expert

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There was a “system failure” in the UK’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, a public health expert has said.

Professor Linda Bauld said the UK was underprepared for a virus like Covid-19, and Europe failed to learn from how south-east Asian countries responded to the pandemic.

She said some of the decisions made in the UK “directly contributed” to the second wave, as she described the failure to ramp up contact tracing in March as a “fundamental mistake”.

Prof Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, was speaking after the number of UK coronavirus deaths passed 100,000.

She told BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme on Wednesday:

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I think we’re going to look back on this as a system failure, I think that we came into this pandemic underprepared for a virus like this.

We at UK level chose not to follow the model of south-east Asian countries, and during the last year, the last 11 months, the response and some of the decisions that have been made have certainly directly contributed particularly to the second wave.

I think it’s really incredibly difficult for people to hear, for example, a quarter of deaths that we’ve seen in this pandemic have occurred really over the last month or so.

She said Europe and the UK could have recognised from the experiences of Asian countries that viruses move between individuals and spread around the world by travel.

Prof Bauld said one thing the UK and Europe “really struggled” with was the closure of borders, which happened very quickly in countries like Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea and within China.

Airport arrivals hall
Prof Bauld said the UK needs to be ready to respond to more new variants of the virus (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

She said:

The second thing was the importance of testing, testing infrastructure, which those countries had, they were ready with PPE and they also know the really essential importance of contact tracing, test, trace, isolate, protect, and they already had those systems but they increased them at scale.

We have a legacy of contact tracing but we paused our response in March.

Australia and New Zealand benefited hugely. They really followed the model of those countries and we didn’t unfortunately until later in the pandemic.

Prof Bauld said the UK had been preparing for a pandemic flu rather than a Sars-type virus, and a clear decision in “pandemic preparedness” for flu is that once infection levels get too high, contact tracing is not viable.

HEALTH Coronavirus Deaths
(PA Graphics)

She said that is why there was a “strategic decision” in March not to ramp up that system.

Prof Bauld also said it is important not to over-emphasise the role of the new, more rapidly spreading variant in the current situation.

She said:

It absolutely has made what was a bad situation much worse, but I think the Government could not necessarily have predicted the virus would behave exactly this way, but I think they could have predicted there might have been a problem of that kind.

So the preventable deaths we’ve seen in November, December and January are a combination of two things, the fact that we made mistakes in the summer and didn’t get ready for a second wave and then this variant on top of it.

As we look ahead we need to prevent more of these different lineages of the virus coming into the country, while also just being prepared for the fact that we might see home-grown variants like this kind, and that means being ready to tweak our vaccines and respond to that in future.

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