The Irish Times view on Covid-19 in the UK: a devastating critique

A damning parliamentary report does an important service by highlighting lessons that can be learned immediately

Tributes to lives lost at the Covid-19 Memorial Wall in London on Wednesday.  A House of Commons Coronavirus Inquiry has proved to be damning for the UK government. Photograph: Andy Rain/ EPA

Tributes to lives lost at the Covid-19 Memorial Wall in London on Wednesday. A House of Commons Coronavirus Inquiry has proved to be damning for the UK government. Photograph: Andy Rain/ EPA

 

The British government’s mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis has been consistent and clear to see from the earliest stages of the pandemic. Its delay in introducing a lockdown in March 2020, its failure to establish a fit-for-purpose system for testing and tracing, and its insistence on managing rather than suppressing the virus together resulted in the deaths of many people who would otherwise have survived the pandemic.

A new British parliamentary report into the handling of the crisis by Boris Johnson’s government manages to reinforce that general impression while beginning to explore the reasons for those terrible failures. It is a devastating critique, describing how government ministers and the scientists who advised them fell into groupthink mode and adopted a “policy approach of fatalism” when confronted with rising case numbers in the initial stages of the crisis. A remarkable absence of curiosity or critical thinking permeated the higher levels of the emergency response, with the result that London learned little from other countries’ experiences of tracing and suppression and instead fell back on a “British exceptionalism” that assumed such lessons were of limited relevance anyway. Public bodies were unable to share vital information and scientific advice was impaired by a lack of transparency, input from international experts and meaningful challenge from politicians. It was, the report concludes, one of the worst public health failures in UK history.

The 150-page document will not be the final word on the UK’s crisis response – Johnson has promised a full public inquiry after the pandemic has ended – but it does an important service by highlighting lessons that can be learned immediately. A similar study should be undertaken into the response of the State here, where senior Government figures have spoken vaguely of an inquiry at a later date. There is no reason why such work cannot begin now, with the publication of interim reports on specific themes as the inquiry progresses. The pandemic could last for years, and a new one could strike at any time.

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