Ex-Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt admits HE was part of the 'groupthink'

Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt admits HE was part of ‘groupthink’ that wrongly prepared Britain for a flu pandemic instead of one triggered by a coronavirus

  • Mr Hunt says UK should have locked down earlier at the start of the pandemic
  • Health select committee chair says Boris Johnson is ‘ultimately responsible’ 
  • But he says the ‘groupthink’ advice given by experts at the time was wrong 

Jeremy Hunt admits he was part of the ‘groupthink’ that focused too much on flu and failed to adequately plan for a coronavirus pandemic

Jeremy Hunt today admitted he was part of ‘groupthink’ which wrongly focused too much on flu and failed to adequately plan for a coronavirus pandemic. 

The former Health Secretary said the UK should have locked down earlier, accepting the main takeaway of a devastating report into the Government’s failures in handling the pandemic.

And he admitted Boris Johnson is ‘of course ultimately responsible’, but hit back that some of the advice he got ‘was also wrong’.

Mr Hunt’s comments follow the damning probe from MPs that concluded thousands of care home residents died needlessly because they were treated by ministers as an ‘afterthought’.

It claimed No10’s failure to lock down early enough stemmed from ‘false groupthink’ among scientific advisers, who wanted to manage the spread of the virus rather than suppress it.   

Ministers followed protocols based on modelling for a flu pandemic, not one caused by coronavirus.  

Responding to the report today, Mr Hunt told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: ‘There was a groupthink that the way you tackle a pandemic should be similar to a flu pandemic.

‘I was part of that groupthink too when I was health secretary.

‘During that period, an American university said we were the second-best prepared country in the world.’

Mr Hunt says the UK should have locked down earlier and ‘the Prime Minister is of course ultimately responsible, but some of the advice that he got was also wrong’. Pictured: Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street with Government Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance and Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty

Britain led the world on vaccine development and medical research throughout the pandemic – saving millions of lives globally, the report concluded.

MPs said the jab vaccine programme was ‘one of the most stunning scientific achievements in history’ and that it ‘redeemed’ many of the UK’s other policy failings.

They praised the ‘boldly planned and effectively executed’ project that meant Britain was the first Western country to roll out a vaccine against Covid.

The report said it was a ‘masterstroke’ to bring in Dame Kate Bingham, a venture capitalist, as head of the newly-established Vaccine Taskforce in May 2020.

It said the Government quickly ‘identified that a vaccine would be the route out of the pandemic’ and invested heavily in development, providing £20million to fully fund clinical trials of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

The report praised an ‘aggressive’ approach that meant the UK had secured agreements for more than 300million vaccine doses by November last year.

It said the UK’s medical regulator adopted an ‘agile and innovative’ approach of constantly reviewing trial data so vaccines could be deployed as soon as possible.

This meant Britain was the first Western country to approve a vaccine and, on December 8 last year, 91-year-old Margaret Keenan, from Coventry, became the first person in the world to receive a Covid-19 jab outside of a clinical trial.

The report concluded: ‘The UK vaccination programme – from discovery of potential vaccines against Covid-19 to the vaccination of nearly 80 per cent of the adult population by 1 September 2021 – has been one of the most successful and 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 allowed, as at September 2021, a resumption of much of normal life, with incalculable benefits to people’s lives.’

He added: ‘We know that clearly wasn’t the case.’

Britain’s health chiefs war-gamed several flu pandemic scenarios before the onset of Covid, basing their reaction to the coronavirus crisis on policies that are likely to have worked against flu.

Ministers later admitted these simulations left the UK woefully underprepared for the coronavirus. 

Campaigners were furious ministers never based their response to the pandemic on a coronavirus simulation. 

But it emerged this week that officials did in fact wargame such a scenario, with Operation Alice in 2016 recommending that ministers begin stockpiling personal protective equipment (PPE), invest in a digital contact-tracing system and introduce testing of foreign travellers.

The Government has since been criticised on all three of these areas of its response in the actual pandemic, despite the recommendations to prepare for them coming four years before the crisis. 

Ex-Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who stood down last month for breaking coronavirus restrictions, previously admitted ‘famously all the preparations and the plans that were in place were for a flu pandemic’.

Mr Hunt, who now chairs the Health and Social Care Committee, said the countries ‘that have direct experience of Sars and Mers were the ones who responded best in the first half the pandemic’.

Questioned on the impact of Mr Johnson’s personality early on in the pandemic, Mr Hunt suggested the PM delayed lockdown because he was following the advice, not because he thought it would be ‘unpopular’.

He said: ‘Every PM’s personality matters. But in this particular case.. he was following the scientific advice.

‘And the question we have to ask is why across the whole of the system in those early months, everyone was advising the wrong approach?’

Mr Hunt said that when images of the pandemic in Italy hit TV screens in the UK, the focus was on hospitals rather than other places like care homes.

One of the biggest errors made towards the start of the pandemic was that hospitals discharged tens of thousands patients into care homes without testing them for the virus because officials were focused on ‘protecting the NHS’. 

This had the devastating impact of ‘seeding’ the disease among the vulnerable, the report claimed. 

Almost one in four people who died from coronavirus lived in a home, with 40,000 residents succumbing to the virus up until this May.

Mr Hunt said: ‘The focus of attention, as so often happened in my time as well when I was health secretary, became what was happening in hospital wards, and we didn’t have that bigger picture as to the whole system.

‘And that’s what we urgently need to put right.’

He said that ‘in the context where there were things that we didn’t know, it took us too long to get to the right approach’.

Referencing the report, he said: ‘We say this was like a football match with two very different halves, and yes there were those very serious errors that… led to many tragedies.

‘But in the second half of the match, we have the vaccine programme which was, we say, the most effective initiative in the history of British science and public administration.

‘We had the discovery of treatments like dexamethasone in the UK which saved a million lives worldwide, we had that extraordinary response in the NHS which saw everyone who needed a ventilator and an intensive care bed, got one.’

The report concluded Britain led the world on vaccine development and medical research throughout the pandemic — saving millions of lives globally.

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