Britain’s delay in imposing coronavirus lockdown cost thousands of lives, report says

Front page of a newspaper early in the pandemic
London’s Evening Standard announces the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in Britain in March 2020.
(Alberto Pezzali / Associated Press)

Britain’s failure to impose a lockdown in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic cost thousands of unnecessary deaths and ranks among the country’s worst public health blunders, lawmakers concluded Tuesday in the nation’s first comprehensive report on the pandemic.

The deadly delay derived from the failure of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government to question the recommendoations of scientific advisors, resulting in a dangerous level of “groupthink” that caused them to dismiss the more aggressive strategies adopted in East and Southeast Asia to limit infections, the report says.

It was only when Britain’s National Health Service risked being overwhelmed by rapidly rising infections that Johnson’s Conservative government finally ordered a lockdown, in late March 2020.


“Decisions on lockdowns and social distancing during the early weeks of the pandemic — and the advice that led to them — rank as one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced,” says the joint report from the House of Commons’ science and health committees. “Painful though it is, the U.K. must learn what lessons it can of why this happened if we are to ensure it is not repeated.”

Lawmakers said their inquiry was designed to uncover why the U.K. performed “significantly worse” than many other countries during the initial period of the pandemic. Britain has recorded more than 138,000 COVID-19 deaths, the highest toll in Europe after Russia.

But government officials said they did what they could with the information they had in a time of crisis.

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“It was an unprecedented pandemic,″ Cabinet minister Stephen Barclay told Sky News. “We were learning about it as we went through, and of course with hindsight, there’s things we know about it now that we didn’t know at the time.”

Bereaved families reacted to the parliamentary report with outrage, furious that the people who died of COVID-19 received scant mention in the 150-page document. They said the joint committee was interested only in “speaking to their colleagues and friends.”

“The report it’s produced is laughable and more interested in political arguments about whether you can bring laptops to ... meetings than it is in the experiences of those who tragically lost parents, partners or children to COVID-19,” said Hannah Brady, spokesperson for COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice. “This is an attempt to ignore and gaslight bereaved families, who will see it as a slap in the face.”


The parliamentary report comes amid frustration with the timetable for a formal public inquiry into the government’s response to COVID-19. Johnson says the inquiry will start in the spring.

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The report is based on testimony from 50 witnesses, including former Health Secretary Matt Hancock — who resigned after violating coronavirus protocols — and former Johnson aide Dominic Cummings. It was unanimously approved by 22 lawmakers from the three largest parties in Parliament: the governing Conservatives, the opposition Labor Party and the Scottish National Party.

The committees praised the government’s early focus on vaccines as the ultimate way out of the pandemic and its decision to invest in vaccine development. These decisions led to Britain’s successful inoculation program, which has seen almost 80% of people 12 and older now fully vaccinated.

“Millions of lives will ultimately be saved as a result of the global vaccine effort in which the U.K. has played a leading part,” the committees said.

But they also criticized the government’s test-and-trace program, saying its slow, uncertain and often chaotic performance hampered Britain’s response to the pandemic.

The government’s strategy during the first three months of the crisis reflected official scientific advice that widespread infection was inevitable because testing capacity was limited, there was no immediate prospect for a vaccine and officials believed the public wouldn’t accept a lengthy lockdown, the report says. As a result, the government sought merely to manage the spread of the coronavirus instead of trying to stop it altogether.

The report describes this as a “serious early error” that Britain shared with many countries in Europe and North America.

“There was a groupthink that the way you tackle a pandemic should be similar to a flu pandemic,” Jeremy Hunt, a former British health secretary who now heads Parliament’s health committee, said. “I was part of that groupthink, too, when I was health secretary.”

Hunt said that before the coronavirus hit, “an American university said we were the second-best-prepared country in the world” for a pandemic.

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“We know that clearly wasn’t the case,” he said.

Trish Greenhalgh, a professor of primary care health services at Oxford University, said the report “hints at a less-than-healthy” relationship between government and scientific bodies. With COVID-19 still killing hundreds of people every week in Britain, advisory committees continue to debate exactly what evidence is “sufficiently definitive” to be considered certain, she said.

“Uncertainty is a defining feature of crises,” Greenhalgh said. “Dare we replace ‘following the science’ with ‘deliberating on what best to do when the problem is urgent but certainty eludes us’? This report suggests that unless we wish to continue to repeat the mistakes of the recent past, we must.”

Even senior officials such as Cummings and Hancock told the committees that they were reluctant to push back against scientific consensus.

Hancock said as early as Jan. 28, 2020, that he found it difficult to push for widespread testing of people who didn’t show symptoms of COVID-19 because scientific advisors said it wouldn’t be useful.

“I was in a situation of not having hard evidence that a global scientific consensus of decades was wrong but having an instinct that it was,” he testified. “I bitterly regret that I did not overrule that scientific advice.”