Politics

Ministers have learned NOTHING from Covid pandemic, warns ex-testing tsar


Sir John Bell, a medical expert at the University of Oxford, said he is not convinced the Government is 'going to learn any major lessons', warning that 'no action' has been taken so far to 'make things better next time'

Sir John Bell, a medical expert at the University of Oxford, said he is not convinced the Government is ‘going to learn any major lessons’, warning that ‘no action’ has been taken so far to ‘make things better next time’

The UK appears to have learned nothing from the Covid crisis and has taken ‘no action’ to prepare for the next pandemic, a former top Government scientific adviser warned today.  

Oxford University‘s Sir John Bell, who served as Boris Johnson‘s testing tsar, praised the effort of scientists over the last two years but was highly critical of his old employers.

He said the Government’s pandemic preparedness and public health capacity ‘was poor’ and as a result the first six months of Britain’s Covid response was ‘pretty bad’. 

Professor Sir John claimed that despite spending ‘two years in the trenches’ trying to get the systems up to speed, ‘no action’ has been taken to ‘make things better next time’ there is an outbreak of a novel virus.

The lack of preparedness meant that the UK was stung by exorbitant fees for protective gear, did not have sufficient testing capabilities during the first wave and delayed implementing Covid restrictions in March 2020.

Addressing a medical conference today, Sir John said ministers still do not know how well restrictions such as lockdowns and mask-wearing worked. 

The Canadian scientist also said getting politicians to understand the science underpinning the crisis was ‘a problem’ and slammed the NHS for its poor contribution to testing. 

But in sharp contrast to Sir John’s claims, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, today claimed British scientists were looking at how well lockdowns and other Covid curbs worked in the UK and globally to create a playbook for future pandemics.

Speaking at a Royal Society conference in London on the science of Covid, Sir John said the UK should ‘not pay ourselves too hard on the back’ for its pandemic response — despite being one of the freest countries in the world.

Sir John also criticised the NHS’s contribution to testing as being at ‘the heart of many issues’ and ‘not a stunning display of competence’.  

‘I am not sure we are going to learn any major lessons and take action,’ he said. 

So far ‘no action has been taken to make things better next time’, Sir John added.

But he noted that the UK got parts of its response right.

You DON’T have to take a Covid test if you’re ill

Workers with Covid symptoms will no longer need to take a test from Friday as England tries to get back to normal after the pandemic.

Anyone who feels unwell with symptoms such as a high temperature and a cough will be advised to stay at home.

The guidance, issued by Health Secretary Sajid Javid, is part of the Government’s plan to treat Covid like other respiratory illnesses.

People with symptoms and those who have tested positive are urged to wear a mask, avoid close contact with vulnerable people and swerve crowded areas if they must leave home. 

But hospitals and care home patients and staff will still be able to request free Covid tests, as will those at risk of serious illness. Others must pay.

Most visitors to care homes, hospitals and prisons will no longer have to take a test.

And free parking for NHS staff, introduced during the pandemic, is coming to an end tomorrow.

Mr Javid said: ‘Thanks to our plan to tackle Covid we are leading the way in learning to live with the virus. 

He said scientists were ‘instrumental in containing the pandemic’, with Sir Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical adviser, and Sir Vallance coordinating experts in the UK for a better response than other nations.

Sir John also hailed the ‘speed and quality of vaccine development’, with the first Pfizer jab being administered in the UK less than a year after the virus was first detected in the country. 

He noted that there were 400 Covid vaccines in development but only seven ‘made it across the finish line’.

Oxford-based AstraZeneca’s vaccine, one of the successful contenders which has been administered 2.82billion times worldwide, has a ‘really powerful effect’ against severe illness and death, Sir John said.

And the gathering and sharing of data in the UK, such as the ‘stunning’ Office for National Statistics infection survey, helped leaders make ‘good, sensible decisions’, he added.

The surveillance study, which swabs hundreds of thousands of Britons every fortnight to estimate infection levels across the UK, is one of the most accurate methods of measuring the current Covid situation. 

Latest results have shown that infections and hospitalisations have surged in the UK since Freedom Day, when all restrictions were dropped and Britons were urged to ‘live with the virus’.  

The comments come as Sir Patrick today revealed that experts are exploring what parts of Covid restrictions worked best in the UK and globally. 

Speaking to MPs on the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Sir Patrick suggested harsh restrictions could play a part in outbreaks to come.

He said: ‘I do think it is now going to be incredibly important to look internationally and nationally to try to dissect which components of restrictions are the ones that were the most important.

‘The world should learn from this so there is an advice handbook for the future and also to take into account the different characteristics of viruses.’ 

Earlier, a member of No10’s Covid nudge unit hinted Britons are not changing their behaviours now despite rising cases and hospital rates because they are less scared.

Professor Ann John, who co-chairs SAGE’s behavioural subgroup, told MPs people are mixing more than when infections were at similar levels as Omicron surged in December.

She admitted the Spi-B group advised Government on how to use fear to change how people behave earlier in the pandemic but said the tactic of fearmongering was ditched soon after. 

Sir Patrick Vallance admits UK needs a lockdown handbook for future pandemics as No10 adviser hints Covid cases are now rising because ministers ditched ‘Project Fear’

Officials are already drawing up a lockdown handbook for future pandemics, Sir Patrick Vallance revealed today. 

The Government’s chief scientific adviser told MPs that experts are exploring what parts of Covid restrictions worked best in the UK and globally. 

Speaking to MPs on the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Sir Patrick suggested harsh restrictions could play a part in outbreaks to come.

He said: ‘I do think it is now going to be incredibly important to look internationally and nationally to try to dissect which components of restrictions are the ones that were the most important.

‘The world should learn from this so there is an advice handbook for the future and also to take into account the different characteristics of viruses.’ 

Earlier, a member of No10’s Covid nudge unit hinted Britons are not changing their behaviours now despite rising cases and hospital rates because they are less scared.

Professor Ann John, who co-chairs SAGE’s behavioural subgroup, told MPs people are mixing more than when infections were at similar levels as Omicron surged in December.

She admitted the Spi-B group advised Government on how to use fear to change how people behave earlier in the pandemic but said the tactic of fearmongering was ditched soon after.

Infections and hospitalisations have surged in the UK since Freedom Day, when all restrictions were dropped and Britons were urged to ‘live with the virus’. 

No10's advice handbook for future pandemics should include all the best 'components of restrictions', Sir Patrick Vallance claimed today

No10’s advice handbook for future pandemics should include all the best ‘components of restrictions’, Sir Patrick Vallance claimed today

We cannot have vaccines every four months, Sir Patrick Vallance insists 

Covid vaccines are likely to be taken once a year by vulnerable people in a similar way to flu, Sir Patrick Vallance predicted today.

The Government’s chief scientific adviser insisted jabs cannot be dished out every four months.

He claimed research needs to be done to ensure future vaccines offer more durable protection so people do not need top-ups as regularly.

And he suggested experts need a better understanding of which vaccines will be needed against future variants.

Speaking at the Science and Technology Committee, Sir Patrick said: ‘I think what it will probably look like, will be annual vaccines for a certain part of the population as we have for flu.

‘What we need to move to, though, is better understanding of how to predict, which vaccine is required each year.

‘Messenger RNA vaccines and indeed viral vector vaccines have been incredibly useful because they’ve been quick to get off the ground and relatively easy to dial up the design of them.

‘They may be the right ones to given annual vaccine, [but] they may not.’

He added: ‘What we now need to think about is what gives you a durable response.

‘Because what isn’t credible is to start having vaccines every four months for everybody.

‘That’s just not a way that this can work. We have to move to a sensible, annual cycle in my view.’

Later in the committee, Sir Patrick suggested the removal of curtailments may not last forever, with future pandemics likely to require some sort of lockdown.

He said ‘numerous papers’ have been published on the effectiveness of restrictions, but it is difficult to discern which ones were beneficial.

Sir Patrick dismissed a controversial paper from John Hopkins University economists that claimed lockdowns only reduced deaths by 0.2 per cent.

The paper claimed the stay-at-home order (2.9 per cent), school closures (4.4 per cent) and business closures (10.6 per cent) were individually more effective.

But some experts accused the researchers of ‘cherry-picking’ information, claiming the paper is limited because it brings together different restrictions imposed in different places at different times.

Sir Patrick said future lockdown advice will have to take into account what virus the world is facing or what strain of Covid has taken over.

He said: ‘The transmissibility associated with Omicron is different to the transmissibility associated with Alpha or Wuhan strain, and probably the measures would make a different effect as well.

‘So I think a sophisticated look back at the specific actions in lockdown and which ones had the biggest effect on transmission and circumstances is an important piece of work to do.’

Earlier in the session, Professor John suggested people’s reaction to rising cases has diminished now that Government messaging has been toned down.

She said: ‘It feels like common sense that where you get rising infections or where there is mandated behaviour, that people’s behaviour follows and sometimes they did but sometimes they didn’t.

‘I think the “pingdemic” was really effective in terms of changing people’s behaviours and the way they mixed.

‘We’re seeing much less of a response at the moment to rising levels of infection and hospitalisations.’

She admitted that one of 11 papers first submitted to SAGE by the Spi-B group advocated for a fear-based approach.

Minutes from the group’s March 22, 2020, meeting said: ‘The perceived level of threat is to be increased amongst those who are complacent by using hard-hitting emotional messaging.’ 

But she claimed the psychiatrists, sociologists, anthropologists and ethicists advising Government communications abandoned the advice later on. 

Professor John said: ‘We never advised on upping the levels of fear. I think it was presented as part of the evidence base in terms of the pandemic.

‘And after that, if you look at all our papers — we absolutely advise that fear does not work. Now in terms of communications, we did provide underlying principles.

‘Messages should be simple, rationales should be explained, consistency was important. There were core principles — fear was not one of them.’



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