Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has told a Covid-19 Inquiry that the lockdown could have been avoided in the UK and blamed it on a “narrowness of thinking”.
The Treasury chief was giving evidence to the first stage of the inquiry, which is looking into UK preparedness for the coronavirus pandemic, a virus that caused the country to be placed under restrictions several times from March 2020. The senior Conservative politician, who was healthy secretary between 2012 and 2018, said exercises to prepare for a future pandemic were full of “groupthink”, which he wished he had “challenged at the time”.
And he said that had officials understood the role of quarantining infected people, as discovered in East Asian countries during Mers, then the first lockdown might have been “avoided”. Hunt told the inquiry, was that by the time a regime of testing and isolation was considered for Covid, the transmission rate was too high.
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“And then it was inevitable that you were going to have to use a lockdown,” he said. “Had we got on the case much earlier with that approach, we might have avoided that.”
UK “groupthink” had also led ministers and officials to think “we knew this stuff best”, he said, adding that there was a “narrowness of thinking” when it came to learning from Taiwan and South Korea, which had dealt with MERS.
“They learned those lessons and there was clearly a narrowness of thinking, of which I was part, which didn’t think hard enough about that kind of potential pandemic,” Hunt added. He also revealed that he was not briefed about UK government modeling of a non-flu based epidemic despite it being carried out while he was the cabinet minister responsible for health.
He said it was a “wholly mistaken assumption” for past administrations not to prepare for “other types of pandemic that might emerge”.
He said studies by the likes of Johns Hopkins University in the US had viewed the UK as being “very good at dealing with pandemics”, but said that assumption proved to be “completely wrong”.
“We hadn’t given nearly enough thought to other types of pandemic that might emerge and that was, with the benefit of hindsight, a wholly mistaken assumption,” Hunt told the inquiry’s lead counsel Hugo Keith KC on Wednesday (June 21).
He suggested the government had “too narrow a focus” during Exercise Cygnus, a cross-government exercise in 2016 to test the UK’s response to a serious influenza pandemic. The findings of Exercise Alice, modeling which also took place that same year to assess the impact of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), were not shared with him, he also revealed.
Hunt said the Alice report was the “only place” where the “importance of quarantine” was clearly laid out.
He added: “The fundamental issue was that we were — and by the way not just us, across western Europe and North America — there was a shared assumption that herd immunity was inevitably going to be the only way you could contain a virus because it spread like wildfire.”
Hunt’s evidence comes after Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden told the inquiry he was reassured during his time in the Cabinet Office, from July 2019 to February 2020, that the UK was in a “pretty strong state of preparedness” for any future pandemic.
Dowden also told the investigation that preparations for a no-deal Brexit put the country in a “strong position” to respond to other challenges. The deputy premier’s evidence session had followed on from Professor Sir Mark Walport, who told the inquiry the UK had not been “operationally prepared” for a pandemic.
The former chief scientific adviser to the UK government said the focus in developed countries had “moved away from infectious diseases after the Second World War”, with more attention on conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.
It came after Lord Bethell, a Conservative former health minister, said “making money is not a crime” as he defended the VIP lane for coronavirus-related contracts, which saw some politically-connected firms make huge profits.
The peer also blamed “longstanding” inequalities for the NHS not being sufficiently prepared for the pandemic.
Ending the day’s evidence, Hunt said the legacy of the 2008 financial crisis made it impossible to boost NHS funding sooner to better prepare for the pandemic.
The Chancellor admitted feeling “concerned” about the “fragility” of the NHS and Social Care systems after Exercise Cygnus, leading to an announced increase in funding in June 2018.