Ethnic minority communities and disabled people were among those left behind by the UK Covid response, MPs said. Image: Andrew Parsons/Number 10
The UK government’s Covid response is to blame for thousands of avoidable deaths in the early stages of the crisis, according to a scathing new parliamentary report.
The government’s “slow” action on the emergency early in 2020 was characterised by a national lockdown implemented weeks too late, the “chaotic” test and trace system and neglect of the country’s most vulnerable people, MPs concluded.
The health and science committees heard evidence from more than 50 people involved in the government’s pandemic response – including Dominic Cummings, chief medical officer Chris Whitty and former health secretary Matt Hancock – as part of their investigation.
Nearly 140,000 people in the UK have died within 28 days of a positive Covid test, and more than 160,000 have Covid on their death certificate, according to the Office for National Statistics. That puts the UK in the top ten for fatalities globally.
The government’s “fatalistic” approach and delayed introduction of social distancing ranks as “one of the most important public health failures the UK has ever experienced”, MPs said in their report on the UK Covid response.
Speaking on Sky News, cabinet minister Stephen Barclay refused to apologise to families of those who had died with the virus and said he had “not had a chance to read” the report.
Boris Johnson has already promised a Spring 2022 public inquiry into the handling of the crisis, which Labour demanded be brought forward in light of the report’s findings.
The UK narrowly avoided a summer 2021 lockdown due to test and trace failure
The test and trace system was so poor that another lockdown would have been highly likely in summer 2021, the report said, were it not for the vaccine rollout.
The government ignored successful measures taken by other countries to stop the spread of Covid-19 – particularly in East Asia – in what the report called an “inexcusable oversight”.
Ministers stopped community testing early in the pandemic while branches of government failed to share information with each other, MPs said. The UK was one of the first countries in the world to develop a test for Covid – in January 2020 – but the resultant test and trace system did little to address the public health crisis.
“A country with a world-class expertise in data analysis should not have faced the biggest health crisis in a hundred years with virtually no data to analyse,” the report said in a scathing indictment of the UK Covid response.
“What was being achieved in other countries appeared to be of little interest in the initial weeks of the pandemic. This was an inexcusable oversight.”
People with learning disabilities received ‘do not resuscitate’ notices, against NHS guidance
The report confirms widespread fears that ‘do not attempt CPR’ (DNACPR) notices were applied to disabled people, despite no “national NHS guidance” to do so.
Medical staff gave a patient’s learning disabilities as the rationale for a DNACPR decision in “several cases”, the committees heard from NHS England evidence. This was despite national guidance issued in April 2020 stating that “learning disability” and “Down’s syndrome” should never be a reason for such an order.
Steve Scown, chief executive for charity Dimensions UK, told MPs his organisation had seen several DNACPRs issued to people “without any consultation with their families”.
“The fact that they were placed on files without any meaningful conversation with families or any other professional is, frankly, disgraceful,” he told the committees.
People with learning disabilities experienced significantly higher death rates from Covid-19 than the country as a whole, the report said. They were particularly vulnerable entering the pandemic due to pre-existing health conditions, MPs said, but this was exacerbated by how difficult it was for them to get the health and social care they needed in lockdown.
The death rate among adults with learning disabilities was around 3.6 times higher than the average population, according to Public Health England. But because deaths were even more disproportionate among younger adults with learning disabilities, the mortality rate rises to around six times higher than the general population when adjusted for age.
The government did not protect ethnic minorities
The first ten NHS staff to die with Covid-19 were from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. This signalled the start of a trend which meant BAME communities were more likely to experience severe illness and death as a result of the virus.
While there had been some speculation that this was due to more frequent instances of co-morbidities, such as high blood pressure, the report said it was difficult to argue that was the real reason behind the disproportionate impact on people from ethnic minority backgrounds.
Other factors such as poverty, over-representation in low-paid frontline roles, crowded housing and difficulty accessing health services in deprived areas were likely to be the main contributors to higher death rates in these communities, the report said, echoing assertions from health and socio-economic experts throughout the crisis. Discrimination meant fewer BAME workers felt able to speak up and express concerns around protective equipment or their own vulnerabilities.
The MPs called on the government to take action on health inequalities now as part of its levelling up agenda, pointing to “classic features of inequality” which existed well before the pandemic.
The report does not mention sick pay
Trade unions and opposition MPs repeatedly called on the government to increase sick pay as part of the UK Covid response and make it mandatory for all staff during the pandemic, citing workers facing an impossible choice between self-isolating with the virus and being able to make ends meet.
In February, the Trades Union Congress published research demonstrating how sick pay reforms – including raising statutory sick pay (SSP) to £330 per week, the equivalent of a week’s pay at the real living wage – could “help tackle coronavirus and save many workers from hardship”.
Rishi Sunak repeatedly refused to increase the pay rate, which sits at £96 per week.
Ensuring all workers could afford to stop the spread of Covid-19 was key to the UK’s hopes of effectively tackling the crisis, they said, while the number of self-isolation grants given out remained too low to have real impact. Higher sick pay would also go some way to tackling the health inequalities affecting BAME communities, they added, who were more likely to work in precarious and public-facing jobs.
But the Commons report mentions sick pay only once, in relation to infection control in care homes.
Referring to a study by the Office for National Statistics, MPs said evidence showed “the payment of sick pay was associated with a decreased risk of Covid-19 infections”.
Policies allowing people to be hastily discharged from hospitals into care homes, combined with untested staff carrying the virus, led to thousands of unavoidable deaths, the report said.