‘A country with world-class data analysis expertise should not have faced this crisis with virtually no data’

Parliamentary report on the lessons learned from the response to the coronavirus pandemic finds ‘major deficiencies in the machinery of government’

Credit: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire/PA Images

“A country with a world-class expertise in data analysis should not have faced the biggest health crisis in a hundred years with virtually no data to analyse.”

This was among the many damning conclusions of a newly published parliamentary report that characterised the government’s initial response to the coronavirus pandemic as one of the country’s biggest ever public-health failures. 

The lessons-learned report, jointly authored by the science and technology and health and social care select committees, said that the cessation of community testing for Covid-19 on 12 March was a “serious mistake” that had deprived experts of crucial information with which to support policy and strategy decisions.

“This problem was compounded by a failure of national public bodies involved in the response to share such data as was available with each other, including between national and local government,” the report said. 

Local authorities that gave evidence to the committees indicated that they felt like they were “an afterthought in the designs for data sharing”, according to the report.

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“Throughout the crisis, there has been a strong sense that local authorities and other local public services have consistently been omitted from central government’s initial thinking on designs for data sharing,” Said the Greater London Authority. “This has manifested itself in challenges related to shielding lists, volunteering, testing data and tracing of complex cases, plus difficulties in accessing relevant data about people who are furloughed or economically vulnerable.”

Local NHS bodies were also deprived of crucial data sets in the early months of the pandemic, Jeanelle de Gruchy, then president of the Association of Directors of Public Health, told MPs when giving evidence in November.

“I think directors of public health would say that if we had had all the data we have now in July or earlier, we would have had a stronger response to the epidemic,” she said. “They would not, in some ways, share the nationally held data with us, even though there was lots of agitation about wanting to get the data. That was very slow. When it did start to come through, again it was only certain types of data that were coming through.”

The Test and Trace scheme started to provide some data “in June and early July, it was only from early August that we had patient-identifiable data”, de Gruchy said.

This meant that local public health chiefs did not have “ways in which we could understand who was getting infected and where and whether there were links between people”.

The difficulty in data sharing was just one among a number of “major deficiencies in the machinery of government” identified in the report. This included the mechanisms through which input can be sought from scientific experts.

“The structures for offering scientific advice lacked transparency, international representation and structured challenge,” it added. “Protocols to share vital information between public bodies were absent. The Civil Contingencies Secretariat was inadequately resourced, including with specialist expertise which had been removed. Scientific accomplishment was hampered by operational inadequacy.”

The report did praise the way the government had handled the coronavirus vaccine rollout, which it said was “one of the most effective initiatives in the history of UK science and public administration”.

“Millions of lives will ultimately be saved as a result of the global vaccine effort in which the UK has played a leading part. In the UK alone, the successful deployment of effective vaccines has, as at September 2021, allowed a resumption of much of normal life with incalculable benefits to people’s lives, livelihoods and to society,” it said.

But the NHS Test and Trace programme, by contrast, was set up too late and “fell short of the expectations set for it”.

“It has failed to make a significant enough impact on the course of the pandemic to justify the level of public investment it received. It clearly failed on its own terms, given its aim in September to ‘avoid the need for a second lockdown’ by contributing to a reduction in the ‘R’ number,” the report said. It noted that further lockdowns would likely have been needed this summer had the vaccination programme not been so successful.


Sam Trendall

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