‘Dominic Cummings was right’: where government went wrong on Covid handling

‘Groupthink’ hampered effective pandemic response, suggests new report

Johnson and Cummings
Johnson and Cummings leave Downing Street in September 2019
(Image credit: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images)

The government made “big mistakes” in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic according to a highly critical report from MPs.

“Groupthink” among ministers, scientific advisers and civil servants meant that the government was “not as open” as it should have been to introducing measures that had been successful in other nations, such as “earlier lockdowns, border controls and effective test and trace”, said the report from the cross-party health and science select committees.

The delays in introducing measures like lockdowns and social distancing in the early weeks of the pandemic rank as “one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced” and earlier interventions could have saved thousands of lives, said the report.

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The 150-page document is a result of a joint inquiry by the health and science select committees into the government’s pandemic response. MPs interviewed more than 50 witnesses, including former health secretary Matt Hancock, the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, and former No. 10 adviser Dominic Cummings.

Cummings right in ‘groupthink’ criticism

The findings reveal Boris Johnson’s former aide Cummings to be “at least partly correct” in his criticism of the government that it was too slow to respond to the initial threat of the virus, said The Guardian. Cummings had previously accused ministers and officials of being hampered by a tendency towards what he called “false groupthink”.

Tory MP Greg Clark, chair of the science and technology committee, said it was “right” to view Cummings’ criticisms as having been endorsed by the report, telling the paper: “One of the regrets that he disclosed to the committee was that he had felt intimidated and stayed his hand in terms of challenging the early assumptions.”

Clark continued that Cummings’ difficulty in breaking away from consensus meant there was a need to “institutionalise challenge more” in the government response to a crisis, which allows for differing perspectives to be heard, including from different countries.

Pandemic response failures

Further failures highlighted in the report included the government’s approach to pandemic planning, which it said was “too narrowly and inflexibly” based on a model for a flu-type illness, resulting in “detailed preparations was for what turned out to be the wrong type of disease”, said the report.

It said that while pandemic simulations were carried out, the UK “did not adequately learn the lessons of previous pandemics” and the government’s pandemic planning failed to take into account the lessons learnt from south Asian countries during the 2002-2004 Sars outbreak, or from the Middle East’s containment of Mers in 2012.

And on one of the “most fractious debates” over the government’s coronavirus response – the timing of England’s lockdowns – the report has been “clear and condemnatory”, said The Guardian. The report criticised the initial decision to delay lockdown over fears the public would not accept restrictions for any significant period of time. This “reflected a fatalism” over the spread of Covid that should have been “robustly challenged at the time”.

The government sought to manage rather than suppress the outbreak, said the report, in effect pursuing a policy of herd immunity, although it had not taken an active decision to do so.

“Singled out for particular criticism,” said The Times, was the NHS Test and Trace system, which largely “failed in its stated ambition to prevent future lockdowns”, said the paper. The report condemned the performance of the system, headed by Dido Harding, as “slow, uncertain, and often chaotic” and said it acted as a “drag anchor” on the UK’s response to the pandemic in its early phases.

Partly because it was not established until daily infections had risen to 2,000, “it ultimately failed in its objective to prevent future lockdowns despite vast quantities of taxpayers’ money being directed to it”, said the report.

However, one bright spot in the government’s pandemic response had been the UK’s Covid vaccination programme, which the report praises as “one of the most successful and effective initiatives in the history of UK science and public administration”.

A ‘frustrating read’

This “vast” report is really more about “learning rather than accusing”, said BBC’s chief political correspondent Adam Fleming. While it points out “some pretty major mistakes at structures, systems, attitudes and groups” it refrains from criticising “named individuals”. For those looking for answers over “who’s to blame” it could prove to be “a frustrating read”.

“For all its insights, this report cannot substitute for the full public inquiry Johnson has promised once Covid has passed,” said the Financial Times (FT).

The “most important” implication to come from the report is that “the most effective response would have been to combine the Asia-Pacific approach” – that is, border restrictions, lockdowns and strenuous test-and-trace to suppress infections. It was here the UK and other large economies “fumbled”, said the FT, and the result is that “the cost in lives has been far higher”.

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