Tory minister defends pandemic response without reading damning 151 page report

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A minister has defended the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic after a cross-party report from MPs concluded that serious errors cost thousands of lives.

Minister for the Cabinet Office Stephen Barclay told Sky News’ Kay Burley the government “did take decisions to move quickly”, including on vaccines, and that both scientists and ministers were acting on information they had at the time.

But he admitted he had “not had chance to read” the MPs’ report, which was circulated to the media under embargo on Monday morning and also sent to government departments, including his own Cabinet Office.

The report

The report, from MPs on the Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee, said the UK’s preparation for a pandemic was far too focused on flu, while ministers waited too long to push through lockdown measures in early 2020.

In the wide-ranging study stretching to 151 pages, MPs criticised the fact community testing was abandoned in March 2020 as a “seminal error”, said NHS test and trace was too slow and failed to have a big impact, and that thousands of people died in care homes partly due to a policy of discharging people from hospital without testing.

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At the beginning of the pandemic, when Covid-19 emerged in China, MPs said the UK policy was to mistakenly take a “gradual and incremental approach” to interventions such as social distancing, isolation and lockdowns.

They said this was “a deliberate policy” proposed by scientists and adopted by UK governments, which has now been shown to be “wrong” and led to a higher death toll.

The MPs concluded that the “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”.

After hearing evidence from people including the prime minister’s former adviser, Dominic Cummings, and former health secretary Matt Hancock, the MPs said it was only in the days leading up to the 23 March lockdown that people within government and advisers “experienced simultaneous epiphanies that the course the UK was following was wrong, possibly catastrophically so”.

“Hindsight”

On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Barclay was asked if the government was too slow to go into the first lockdown – a key criticism in the MPs’ report.

He replied:

Well I think there is an issue there of hindsight, because at the time of the first lockdown the expectation was that the tolerance in terms of how long people would live with lockdown for was a far shorter period than actually has proven to be the case, and therefore there was an issue of timing the lockdown and ensuring that that was done at the point of optimal impact.

And so it is a point of hindsight to now say that the way that decision was shaped and how long we could lock down for… because we now know that there was much more willingness for the country to endure that than was originally envisaged.”

Barclay also refused to acknowledge that it was an “appalling error” not to introduce a second lockdown earlier, even though scientists on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) recommended one six weeks before it was introduced. Despite Sage’s recommendation, he still claimed:

We followed the scientific advice throughout, we took action to protect our NHS, we got a vaccine deployed in record time, but I don’t shy away from the fact that there will be lessons to learn.

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