Government’s failure to act at start of pandemic likely caused extra deaths, think-tank warns

Ministers’ over-reliance on mantra of ‘following the science’ blamed

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Tuesday 01 September 2020 22:12
Matt Hancock, here at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, has been criticised over daily testing targets
Matt Hancock, here at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, has been criticised over daily testing targets

The government’s failure to take decisive decisions during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic likely caused “a significant number” of extra deaths, a study into ministers’ handling of the crisis has concluded.

The Institute for Government (IfG), a respected think-tank, says over-reliance by ministers on the claim that they were “following the science” meant that decisions were not taken where scientific certainty was lacking and that decisions often “lacked a wider sense of strategy”.

The warning comes amid calls for an inquiry into handling of the pandemic and why the UK ended up with the highest excess death rate in Europe during the first peak.

In particular, the IfG criticised a decision by health secretary Matt Hancock to set a policy of increasing daily testing to an arbitrary target “without a strong enough sense of how the government would use additional capacity”.

The target and the increased media focus on reaching it “became a distraction and drove counterproductive ‘gaming’ behaviour”, the report said.

“Ministers made much of ‘following the science’. But it is not enough to use evidence: ministers and civil servants also need to understand the limitations of both the evidence base and the forums through which it is channelled; and, difficult as it might be, ministers must be prepared to act in the absence of scientific certainty,” the report concluded.

“Failure to do so now seems likely to have cost a significant number of additional lives, and contributed to the UK suffering the highest excess death rate in Europe over the period to the end of May.”

The report also warned that while measures such as school closures and social distancing were considered in February, some “key aspects of making them work – like remote learning arrangements for schools and guidance for police – were not considered until after decisions had been made”.

By contrast the report’s authors said the successful roll-out of economic support measures showed that ministers and officials “can find fast ways to consult those who will be affected by a policy or programme and think through how it will be carried out, before making a decision”.

Sarah Nickson, researcher at the IfG, said: “Poor decision making is not an inevitable consequence of a crisis. But in a fast-moving situation, there may be little time or opportunity to fix early mistakes. That means that consulting fast and considering implementation at the outset are all the more crucial.”

Alex Thomas, programme director at the IfG, added: “The best decisions are made when the government knows not just what it wants to do, but why it wants to do it. At times, during its early response to the pandemic, the government lacked a wider sense of strategy. Greater focus on ‘why’ it was taking decisions – ultimately to save lives – would have led to better outcomes all round.”

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