Coronavirus may have fallen out of the news cycle but the threat of the virus has certainly not passed. Britain is once again reporting the highest level of infections of any major country. While the back-to-school surge did not materialise in England, the virus continues to spread. Thanks to vaccines, the number of infections does not present nearly the same threat it once did. But the government is nevertheless preparing for ‘Plan B’ if winter takes its toll, with vaccine passports and the reintroduction of restrictions.
This makes it essential that we learn what we can from the last 18 months — especially about the decision to lock down. Yet this week’s Commons select committee report —the first of its kind to take such a detailed look at the government’s handling of Covid — largely misses this opportunity. The report steers clear of asking the all-important question: did lockdowns work? And did the benefits of locking down outweigh the costs?
The report certainly did its bit writing the first part of our recent Covid history. Slowness to act was explained not because the government was arrogantly dismissing the advice of its own scientific advisers, but because it was following it to the letter. We learn that Covid-19 tests were developed in Britain as early as January 2020 but Sage — the scientific advisory group on emergencies — dismissed the case for establishing a testing regime in the community, saying there was no need to test people who were not showing symptoms. Sage was slow to accept the reality of asymptomatic infection.
The UK’s pandemic planning was unfit for purpose. In all of the extensive scenario planning, lockdown was never considered as a tool that could be used in a democracy, so serious discussions about the implications never took place.