21 Jul Coronavirus: UK was ‘asleep’ to the risk of COVID-19 pandemic, leading scientist says | UK News
The UK was “asleep” to the risk of a coronavirus pandemic, according to a leading scientist.
University of Oxford Professor Sir John Bell told the Health and Social Care Select Committee: “We were asleep to the concept that we were going to have a pandemic, shame on us.”
He said “everybody would agree” it would have been better to lock down earlier, but added that some of the government’s later response to the virus and work to secure a vaccine has been “very impressive”.
Sir John also told MPs it is unlikely COVID-19 will be eliminated.
He said: “The reality is that this pathogen is here forever, it isn’t going anywhere.
“Look at how much trouble they’ve had in eliminating, for example, polio, that eradication programme has been going on for 15 years and they’re still not there.
“So this is going to come and go, and we’re going to get winters where we get a lot of this virus back in action.”
He added: “The vaccine is unlikely to have a durable effect that’ll last for a very long time so we’re going to have to have a continual cycle of vaccinations, and then more disease, and more vaccinations and more disease.
“So I think the idea that we’re going to eliminate it across the population, that’s just not realistic.”
Sir John said one of the UK’s biggest failures was not being on the “front foot” in preparation for a pandemic.
England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said the decision on when to go into lockdown was “complicated” and “the things we were asking people to do were incredibly socially disruptive and economically damaging”.
Professor Whitty also said the decision to stop community testing in March was “entirely practical” because it required “infrastructure we didn’t have”.
He said the country had successfully isolated cases early on in the pandemic, but couldn’t cope with the high number of infections after the “later wave” from European countries.
Prof Whitty said at that stage testing had to be prioritised for “high risk areas”.
Professor Sir Jeremy Farrar, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), told the committee testing should be “random and frequent” in hospitals and clinical settings.
He said there wasn’t enough “urgency” and the UK was “too slow to put in place extra clinical capacity”.
Prof Farrar said he regretted “that SAGE wasn’t more blunt in its advice”.
The committee also heard criticism about a lack of consensus over who should be making decisions.
Professor Sir Paul Nurse, director at the Crick Institute, said there was “too much pass the parcel”.
He said: “I’m not blaming politicians… what I am saying is when you have a pandemic, knowledge is uncertain (and) that is uncomfortable for scientists.”
When asked about the supply of personal protective equipment, Prof Whitty accepted there had been “considerable” problems at the start of the pandemic and said “we are going to continue to have challenges on that”.
Prof Whitty also said he believes the chance of a vaccine before Christmas that is “highly effective” is “very low”.
However, deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van Tam, said he was “cautiously optimistic”.