UK’s pandemic outcome ‘not good,’ scientific adviser says

Alex Morales and Libby Cherry

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief scientific adviser acknowledged there were failings in the U.K.’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, and said some decisions will turn out to have been wrong.

“It’s clear that the outcome has not been good in the U.K.,” Patrick Vallance told the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee hearing on Thursday. “There will be decisions made that will turn out not to have been the right decision at the time.”

U.K.’s Johnson Promises Inquiry to Learn Lessons of Pandemic

Britain's Chief Scientific advisor Patrick Vallance, talks during a press conference in this March 18, 2020, file photo. Vallance acknowledged there were failings in the U.K.’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, and said some decisions will turn out to have been wrong.

Vallance’s comments come a day after Johnson promised to “learn the lessons” of the pandemic with an independent inquiry, which could prove problematic for the government when ministers’ decisions are interrogated with the benefit of hindsight.

Even judged by its own criteria, the government has fallen short. Vallance himself said in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak that keeping deaths below 20,000 would be a “good outcome” for the U.K.: The latest official death toll shows more than 45,000 have died, the most in Europe.

The government has faced criticism from the press and opposition politicians over many aspects of its handling of the outbreak, including locking down the economy too late, a failure to get protective equipment to all medical and care staff who needed it, and allowing hospital patients to be discharged to care homes without being tested for the virus.

Lack of Testing

One area that could have been better was testing, which Vallance, who heads the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said had been a preoccupation of the group from early in the crisis.

“It would have been absolutely preferable to have much greater testing early on,” he said. “We kept saying we need to have more testing capacity in place.”

Vallance also sought to distance his committee from the government’s policy decisions, saying SAGE’s job is to advise and provide options.

“What we’re doing is laying out scientific reasons behind options from which people can choose,” Vallance said. “Overlaying that with economic and other considerations is the job of government.”

Balancing Act

The government is currently trying to strike that balance between health risks and the need to boost the economy. Shops and pubs have reopened, while the official advice remains for people to work from home where possible – though that position was muddied last week when Johnson urged people to “go back to work if you can.” The prime minister is expected to lay out the government’s next steps on Friday.

But Vallance indicated that’s not what he’s advising.

“We’re still at a time where distancing measures are important,” Vallance said. “Of the distancing measures, working from home, for many companies, remains a perfectly good option because it’s easy to do and for many companies it’s not detrimental to productivity.”

He also warned that cases are likely to increase again in the winter and “it’s quite probable that we will see this virus coming back in different waves over a number of years.”