MPs have criticised the UK Government taking a different path to- the devolved nations in the early stages of the pandemic – warning it led to “confusion” over the rules by the public.
A joint House of Commons committee report has given a scathing assessment of the UK Government’s response to the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic – warning that “decisions on lockdowns and social distancing during the early weeks of the pandemic – and the advice that led to them – rank as one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced”.
The cross-party group of MPs focused on the response south of the border, although Nicola Sturgeon’s government broadly followed the advice of the same clinical experts.
The report points to a decision taken by Boris Johnson’s government on May 10 when UK ministers “announced that society would begin to re-open in England through a staged serious of lockdown easing measures”.
The report adds: “From this point, there were divergent approaches to messaging across the four nations of the UK.
“To reflect the gradual lifting of strict lockdown measures in England, the government changed its slogan from “stay home, protect the NHS, save lives” to “stay alert, control the virus and save lives”.
“In contrast, during a press conference on the same day, the First Minister of Scotland emphasised that ‘we remain in lockdown for now and my ask of you remains to stay at home’.”
The document warns that “written evidence to our inquiry suggested that the loss of consistency across the four nations led to confusion, with ‘messages from numerous national bodies that, at times, appeared to contradict each other’.
It adds: “We heard that at this stage, these contradicting messages began to cause confusion.”
The study pointed to evidence submitted by Professor Devi Sridhar, a Scottish Government public health adviser.
The report says that Professor Sridhar, speaking to the Health and Social Care Committee in July 2020, “explicitly linked this confusion to infection rates”.
Professor Sidhar said: “One point where you can see that England and Scotland diverged was when England changed in May to ‘stay alert’.
“Many people did not fully understand what that meant. In Scotland, the message was very clear: ‘stay at home’. When we started to see divergence in infection rates and death rates, it was around that time.”
The report adds that “the three-tier approach to local lockdown restrictions in England” led to “more complexity to government messaging which was, understandably different in different parts of the country”.
The study stresses that “this more differentiated messaging strategy meant that levels of public understanding and compliance began to deteriorate”.
It adds: “Written evidence suggested that the inconsistency in government messaging after the first wave of the pandemic was also damaging to public trust in official information.”
The MPs also criticised former adviser to the Prime Minister, Dominic Cummings, who caused public outrage after travelling from London to Durham during the ‘stay at home’ lockdown despite believing he may have Covid.
The research highlights that “the perception that key government figures, including the former assistant to the Prime Minister, had breached lockdown rules may have further undermined public trust during spring 2020”.
It adds: “In oral evidence, Dominic Cummings acknowledged that his widely reported trip to Durham was ‘a complete disaster’ and admitted that it ‘undermined public confidence in the whole thing’.”