Covid inquiry: why the UK was so ill prepared for the covid-19 pandemic

People demonstrating outside the venue for the UK Covid-19 Inquiry in London in October 2023

ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images

“The UK prepared for the wrong pandemic.” That is a key conclusion from the first part of a government inquiry examining the UK’s response to the covid-19 pandemic, specifically looking at its preparedness and resilience.

“In 2019, it was widely believed in the United Kingdom and abroad that the UK was not only properly prepared but was one of the best-prepared countries in the world to respond to a pandemic. This belief was dangerously mistaken,” Heather Hallett, the former judge who leads the ongoing UK Covid-19 Inquiry, said in a video statement released alongside the report. “In reality, the UK was ill-prepared.”

“I have no hesitation in concluding that the processes, planning and policy of the civil contingency structures across the United Kingdom failed the citizens of all four nations,” said Hallett. “There were serious errors on the part of the state and serious flaws in our civil emergency systems. This cannot be allowed to happen again.”

A key reason that the UK was ill-prepared was that its planning assumed a pandemic would be due to a dangerous strain of flu or something similar, the report concludes. “The effect was that risk was assessed too narrowly in a way that excluded other types of pandemic.”

Because flu spreads between people so easily, the next key mistake was the assumption that there would be no way to stop a pandemic pathogen from spreading. “Planning was focused on dealing with the impact of the disease rather than preventing its spread,” the report states.

As a result, when the covid-19 pandemic began there were no plans in place for implementing measures such as border controls, lockdowns or testing people and tracing their contacts to identify those who might be infected with the coronavirus and prevent them passing it on to others.

“There was no preparedness at all for the fact that health measures at the border may be needed to protect the population,” former health minister Matt Hancock told the inquiry. Part of the problem is that responsibility for health measures has been devolved to England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, so it isn’t clear who can implement such measures.

Nor had the UK government considered that lockdowns might be necessary. “We had not planned to introduce lockdown,” Mark Woolhouse at the University of Edinburgh in the UK told the inquiry. “Lockdown was an ad hoc public health intervention contrived in real time in the face of a fast-moving public health emergency.”

Testing and tracing was envisaged as part of the response to a new pathogen, but the capacity to do this was limited, as it was assumed that any emerging infections would only cause a small number of cases.

“One of the first lines of defence to a pandemic is containment and this requires a system of test, trace and isolate that can be rapidly scaled up to meet the demands of a major outbreak,” said Hallett. “This did not exist in the United Kingdom when the covid-19 pandemic struck.”

“The UK government’s sole pandemic strategy from 2011 was outdated and lacked adaptability,” she said. “The UK government neither applied it nor adapted it and the doctrine that underpinned it was ultimately abandoned, as was the 2011 strategy itself.”

The report doesn’t explore the consequences of these failures. However, a summary released alongside it states: “If we had been better prepared, we could have avoided some of the massive financial, economic and human cost of the covid-19 pandemic.”

The inquiry is also due to cover: decision-making and political governance in Westminster, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; the impact on healthcare systems across the UK; vaccines, therapeutics and antiviral treatment; government procurement and PPE [personal protective equipment]; the care sector; test-and-trace; the impact on children and young people; and the government’s business and financial responses.

The latest report quotes civil servant Chris Wormald as saying: “There has been a lot of discussion, rightly, of some of the countries that handled covid extremely well, such as South Korea. Effectively what they had was a much higher threshold of containment than we were able to do, and that was the key difference.”

One of the points of the inquiry is to ensure the UK is better prepared in the future. “The evidence is overwhelmingly to the effect that another pandemic, potentially one that is even more transmissible and lethal, is likely to occur in the near to medium future,” said Hallett. “That means the UK will again face a pandemic that, unless we are better prepared, will bring with it immense suffering and huge financial cost and the most vulnerable in society will suffer the most.”

“It is the most urgent report, as we are still ill-prepared for the next pandemic,” Duncan Robertson at Loughborough University in the UK posted on X.


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