If one clear lesson is to be taken from our response to the arrival of Covid-19 three years ago, it is an appreciation of the highly effective role played by scientists in fighting the pandemic. Within weeks of the Sars-CoV-2 virus emerging, researchers had sequenced every one of its genes and had pinpointed the cells through which Covid-19 enters the body. By the end of the year, they had used that knowledge to create a safe, tested vaccine that played a crucial role in ending the pandemic. More than 7 million people across the planet have died of Covid-19 but the death toll would have been far higher had researchers not acted with such speed and potency.
Yet, it’s also clear that national leaders have not always listened to scientists. Economic and political concerns were given priority over scientific issues. These resulted in failures to limit the spread of Covid-19. It is for this reason that the UK inquiry into the nation’s pandemic response, chaired by Heather Hallett, should be followed with rigorous attention.
The government had said it would always be guided by the science when it came to dealing with Covid. This claim now appears hollow. Consider the “eat out to help out” scheme launched by the government, at the Treasury’s behest, in summer 2020. The public was reluctant to mix in pubs and restaurants that had just reopened. The government bribed people to go out and eat.
The scheme allowed diners to claim 50% off more than 160m meals in August at a cost to the Treasury of about PS850m. In the process it also drove up new infections by between 8% and 17%, according to one study carried out a few weeks later.
Crucially, it now appears scientists had not been asked their views about the scheme as it was being set up. Had they been allowed to express their views, their responses would probably have been robust. According to a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, (SAGE) which dealt with the pandemic in question, this scheme was “spectacularly dumb and an obscene use of public funds”. This is a harsh way to describe the policy of Rishi Sunak, our present prime minister and the former chancellor. His reluctance to cooperate with the inquiry should be judged in this light.
The crucial point is that No 10 and the Treasury not only disregarded scientists, but ministers and officials too. According to Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell’s book Johnson at 10, former health secretary Matt Hancock first learned about the scheme when the press release announcing its implementation was published. It’s silo government at its worst. Nor is it the only example of the government’s marred responses to the arrival of Covid-19.
So we should be clear about the need to expose the follies and failures that bedevilled our response to Covid. Medical disasters and scandals have been a part of the nation’s history. The contamination of blood supplies with HIV and hepatitis C in the 1970s and 1980s affected thousands and killed hundreds, for example. However, Covid-19’s impact on Britain was of a different order of magnitude. It led to the deaths of more than 225,000 individuals, produced lockdowns that tarnished the lives of virtually everyone, and has left thousands suffering from clinical depression and the effects of long Covid.
Another outbreak of a new disease on this scale would be devastating. Hence the need to examine the government’s response to Covid-19 in scrupulous detail and to pinpoint where and when it went wrong. Only then will we have a chance to build effective defences against future emerging pandemics.
This last point should not be overlooked. Covid-19 will certainly not be the last zoonotic disease to ravage the world. All evidence indicates that the risk of pandemics will increase as more wild areas are destroyed and disease-carrying wildlife is displaced from its homes.
Last week, the idea that Covid-19 was not due to natural disturbances but was the result of a laboratory leak was resurrected after vague remarks were made by George Gao, a leading Chinese scientist. The majority of western scientists, however, dispute this theory. The virus was natural in origin, they insist. It is crucial we face up to the implications of this assertion. We will not be safe until this fact is understood.
Claiming the pandemic was due to a one-off laboratory mistake – an assertion often influenced by political considerations – is to fail to face up to the fact that human-induced ecological destruction is the real risk. It is unclear when we will learn this lesson. We must, in the interim, unravel past failures which have harmed our pandemic response. Only then will we have a hope of avoiding the worst consequences of the next pandemic and a repeat of the Covid-19 nightmare from which we have only just emerged.
The Post The Observer’s view of the Covid investigation: Why was science ignored? was first published on The Guardian .