The science and technology committee report describes the outcome of the UK’s pandemic policies as not the “best in the world” via an assessment of how science guided decision-making
The committee, chaired by MP Greg Clark, have eight key findings from their examination of how the UK Government applied science to their COVID-19 related policy decisions. This is especially crucial in the wake of the latest death toll, which pushes the UK over 78,000 – with 1,162 deaths as of yesterday (7 January).
The committee highlights a moment from a meeting, in which Mr Clark asks Professor Devi Sridhar, Chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, about the WHO advice: “On reflection and for the future, in the context of a global pandemic, might we be more inclined to follow WHO advice than seek to have a bespoke UK system of advice?”
Professor Sridhar: “I think that is right. Having followed the press briefings and technical information since January, I think WHO advice has been pretty spot-on.”
The decision to stop contact tracing when numbers got too high
On 22 March, the WHO were calling for the UK to focus on “finding those who are sick”, tracing them and enforcing isolation to break the chain of transmission. The need for contact tracing has been made efficiently clear in countries like Vietnam, which suffered 35 declared COVID deaths and broke all chains of transmission via a rigorous contact tracing scheme.
One of the key findings of this report is that contact tracing essentially faded out, stopping on 12 March, 2020, as the Government shifted from “contain” to “delay”. SAGE suggested in an 18 February meeting, that “contact tracing will no longer be useful” when there is sustained transmission of COVID-19 – meaning, no more contact tracing when it seems that the situation is out of control. This decision was taken by the UK Government, not SAGE, who only provided advice at the time signalling that Public Health England (PHE) would not be able to handle more than “five new cases a week” in terms of contact tracing.
This future inability to cope was reflected in the October incident in which PHE lost 16,000 COVID cases in their tracing system. According to the BBC, somebody used an old file format that limited the sheet to 65,000 rows – instead of the normal one million. This led to information simply being left off the record.
In July 2020, Sir Patrick Vallance commented to the science and technology select committee that: “it was very difficult to scale [contact tracing] on the basis of what Public Health England was able to do at the time”.
When the National Audit Office (NAO) published their report on Test and Trace, they found that there was an “unusual organisational relationship” which could create “risks of confused decision-making”.
What did the committee think of the overall Government response?
According to the initial summary of this assessment, the committee believes that the Government initially took serious consideration of what scientists were saying. They also recognise that the 10 month long nature of the pandemic created a lot of pressure on the infrastructure of the UK – including science advice structures that were only ever used for shorter term emergencies than this.
Because of this, the report asks the Government to create a more permanent scientific advice arrangement.
‘Lack of transparency’ on Government decision-making
The report suggests there was a “lack of transparency” about who the scientists of SAGE were, and what sources they were using to give their advice. The UK Government did not have a strong outcome in the first wave, as hospitals filled to capacity, care homes were hit hard, socio-economic inequalities were highlighted and thousands of people died.
Decision-making too slow in comparison to available scientific evidence
Reflecting that sombre knowledge, the report suggests that the Government learn lessons for the future. Some might argue that the future is the present, as we remain suspended in the heart of a crippling second wave.
The committee suggests that the speed of decision making was too slow – especially after scientific evidence came to light for a change in policy. For instance, schools in London were closed immediately – while schools in the North remained open for one day, before the Education Secretary announced closures across Britain. This forward push occurred despite the availability of data showing how seriously the new strain was impacting the country, and how much more easily it was transmitted by children.
Social impact overshadowed by other impacts
The social impact of lockdown wasn’t really explained to the public, in the same way that the viral impact was. This is noted as something to improve, as the mental health of communities across the UK has been intrinsically changed.
They further find that the public continued to, largely, believe in science itself. The exemption is a small pocket of anti-maskers and individuals who believe in 5G conspiracies.
Ultimately, there was a lack of data. The report read: “For a fast-spreading, invisible, but deadly infection, data is the means of understanding and acting upon the course of the virus in the population.”
“Fragmentation of data across public organisations”
The early lack of testing meant that only those with severe COVID who had to enter the hospital were tested – leading to a total lack of knowledge about where the virus was spreading next. The survey of infection only began in May, 2020. The report describes this as a “fragmentation of data across public organisations”, which made the work of tracing and stopping COVID-19 much clumsier than it could have been.
The target of 100,000 COVID tests per day was not set in accordance to any scientific advice, rather, it was politically-motivated. In July, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, speaking to the select committee, said: “The 100,000 target was chosen because that was close to our internal goal.
“Our internal projection for the end of April, when I set the 100,000 target at the start of April, was just over 100,000 tests a day.”