A lack of protective equipment, inadequate testing, and discharging people from hospitals into care homes were the key mistakes made by the government in its approach to coronavirus in England, according to the first responses given to a major coronavirus inquiry seen exclusively by the Guardian.
Older people were “catastrophically let down” and many died before their time, according to a damning submission from the Age UK charity. It also described the initial policy of discharging the elderly from hospital into care settings without a Covid-19 test as a “terrible mistake”.
The British Medical Association (BMA) said the government’s testing and tracing capabilities at the start of the crisis fell “far short” of what was needed and left the infection to “spread unchecked”, while the Unite union doctors group said the government had been slow and had “squandered” weeks of valuable time.
Their perspectives on the government’s management of the crisis are among the first submissions to an inquiry run by the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus, which has received 900 submissions from individuals, charities and public bodies in two weeks.
Public hearings will be held online every Wednesday with recommendations for the government due to be made by the end of summer, which MPs say is crucial in preparing officials for an expected second wave of the virus. Boris Johnson said this week he would look at the findings.
The groups to have given evidence include the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Surgeons.
The inquiry will hear from bereaved families on 5 August, and later from those with persistent and ongoing effects of Covid-19, and from health care staff with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat MP and chair of the cross-party inquiry, said: “The purpose of this group is to save lives. We are not here for a blame game, that will be the purview of a proper inquiry, but my worry is that the government has made mistakes and is continuing to make mistakes and we need to find a way to pressure them into making changes.
“We are going to have to rake over the coals on what decisions could, and should, have been taken, but we are going to come up with recommendations and say: these are the areas that need to be tackled now in case of a second wave.”
The BMA said it was giving its evidence to help the government prepare for a second wave and to improve care, which it felt could be managed through learning and planning.
However it was highly critical of the initial response, blaming the government for delays in reaching its 10,000 tests-a-day target. This level was achieved by the end of March.
“The initial government response in relation to the availability of testing and tracing fell far short of what was needed, which resulted in the infection spreading unchecked, as government did not initially have the capacity to test more widely, and its 10,000 tests-a -ay target was delayed.
“This situation continues, as ongoing delays to the NHS tracking app remain an area of serious concern, particularly as lockdown measures ease and we face the possibility of a second wave of the virus,” a BMA statement said.
The submission from Age UK said there was “no doubt” that a lack of access to PPE and inadequate testing regimes “played a role in the rapid spread of cases”.
It said discharging people into care homes without knowing if they had coronavirus was a “terrible mistake that was only rectified in mid-April”.
“Furthermore, while care homes were quick to reduce the number of visitors, many have been forced to rely on agency staff to sustain safe staffing levels. This certainly hasn’t helped, and, in some cases, it may well have facilitated the transmission of the virus between care settings,” Age UK’s statement said.
“The moral case, for government, on behalf of us all, to act to make good the deficits that have been laid bare, is even stronger than it was before.
“Older people in receipt of care, in care homes especially, have been catastrophically let down and many have died before their time as a result. The fact that similar tragedies have unfolded in other countries too is no consolation and no excuse.”
Evidence given by Doctors in Unite said: “Health and social care staff have embraced the challenges and worked flat out to care for the public. They have done this despite lack of adequate personal protective equipment [PPE], we will never know how many have lost their lives as a direct result of this.”
The Conservative MP and group vice-chair, Dan Poulter, said it was vital that lessons were learned before a difficult winter. Labour’s Clive Lewis, Plaid Cymru’s Liz Saville-Roberts and the Scottish National party’s Philippa Whitford are also on the committee, along with the Green party life peer Jenny Jones.
Other inquiries have taken place on specific elements of the coronavirus response since March. The House of Commons’ petitions committee launched its investigation into the government’s response to the coronavirus, which has so far reported back on its impact on parental leave and students. The health and social care committee also began an inquiry in March looking at the management of the coronavirus outbreak.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson told the Guardian: “At every stage of this global pandemic, we have been guided by the science and we have protected the NHS. It is wrong to suggest care homes were an afterthought or that we were slow to respond to their needs and the steps taken have meant almost 60% of England’s care homes have had no outbreak at all.
“We have established, from scratch, one of the world’s largest testing programmes, with capacity for 300,000 tests every day and NHS Test and Trace has already contacted just under 200,000 people who may have unknowingly spread the virus.
“We have also been working tirelessly to deliver PPE to protect people on the frontline – with more than £2.4billion items delivered to date and over 30 billion items ordered to provide a continuous supplynow and for the future.”