Coronavirus: UK response means NHS staff and patients will ‘die unnecessarily’, Lancet editor says

‘[Ministers] had a duty to immediately put the NHS and British public on high alert... They didn’t take any of those actions,’ wrote Richard Horton

Kate Ng
Saturday 28 March 2020 11:57 GMT
Coronavirus in numbers

The editor of medical journal The Lancet has said the UK government’s responses to the coronavirus outbreak were implemented “far too late” and “failed” NHS workers.

Richard Horton wrote on Saturday that the NHS has been left “wholly unprepared for the surge of severely and critically ill patients” to come, but this could have been prevented had the UK taken more extensive action in February.

He said the government’s initial contain-delay-mitigate-research strategy “failed” because ministers did not follow the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) advice to “test, test, test” all suspected cases.

“They didn’t isolate and quarantine. They didn’t contact trace. These basic principles of public health and infectious disease control were ignored, for reasons that remain opaque,” Mr Horton wrote.

He cited an article published in The Lancet at the end of January, written by researchers who warned Covid-19 could become a global epidemic and encouraged governments to ready “preparedness plans”.

Joseph Wu and his colleagues wrote: “On the present trajectory, 2019-nCoV could be about to become a global epidemic… for health protection within China and internationally… preparedness plans should be readied for deployment at short notice, including securing supply chains of pharmaceuticals, personal protective equipment, hospital supplies and the necessary human resources to deal with the consequences of a global outbreak of this magnitude.”

Mr Horton said the warning should have been heeded by the chief medical officer, the chief executive officer of the NHS in England and the chief scientific advisor, and action should have been taken immediately to “put the NHS and British public on high alert”.

But because they had not, the NHS has been plunged into “chaos and panic”, he continued, with patients and NHS staff left to “die unnecessarily”.

In turn, the government’s subsequent response, which he termed their suppress-shield-treat-palliate plan, arrived too late in the course of the outbreak, he said, leaving the NHS vulnerable to collapsing under the surge of patients.

He also called for England’s deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, to apologise to health workers for saying the UK has “a perfectly adequate supply of personal protective equipment” (PPE) and supply pressures had been “completely resolved” on 20 March.

“I am sure Dr Harries believed what she said,” wrote Mr Horton. “But she was wrong and she should apologise to the thousands of health workers who still have no access to WHO-standard PPE.

“I receive examples daily of doctors having to assess patients with respiratory symptoms, but who do so without the necessary PPE to complete their jobs safely.”

Mr Horton’s comments come a day after it was confirmed that the prime minister, Boris Johnson, and health secretary, Matt Hancock, tested positive for coronavirus.

One hundred and eighty-one people died from Covid-19 in the UK on Friday, the biggest daily jump yet. The death toll now stands at 759.

Tests for frontline NHS workers are to be trialled over this weekend, before being rolled out to more people in the workforce in effort to get people who are clear of the virus back to work.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson denied that the government had conducted no contact tracing.

“We acted swiftly to contain the spread of the virus and our world-class surveillance, including intensive contact tracing and quarantining of early cases, helped to slow it significantly – and targeted contract tracing continues.”

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