Daughter of Covid victim tears into report

A Devon woman [Dr Cathy Gardner] who is challenging the government over its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic says a report from MPs has “skipped over” the initial failure to protect care home residents who were “sitting ducks”.

[The High Court judicial review starts on Tuesday, October 19.]

Edward Oldfield www.devonlive.com

Dr Cathy Gardner, from Sidmouth, has brought the case following the death of her father Michael Gibson, at the age 88 in a care home in April 2020, early in the first lockdown.

Dr Gardner, who has a Phd in virology, claims that the UK Government, and NHS England, unlawfully failed to do enough to protect the right to life of vulnerable care home residents in the early response to the virus.

A report from MPs on the Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee, published on Tuesday, said the UK’s preparation for a pandemic was far too focused on flu, while ministers waited too long to push through lockdown measures in early 2020.

In the wide-ranging study stretching to 151 pages, MPs criticised the fact community testing was abandoned in March 2020 as a “seminal error”, said NHS test and trace was too slow and failed to have a big impact, and that thousands of people died in care homes partly due to a policy of discharging people from hospital without testing.

The MPs concluded that the “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”.

Dr Gardner, who has a science background and worked in the pharmaceutical industry, said: “For me, the section on social care skipped over the surface. It mentions in the first paragraph that the arrangements to protect the elderly were of vast importance, particularly in the early stages of the pandemic, but it does not go back to mention what were the measures to protect the elderly, what should have been done, and if they were not done, why not.”

She added: “Nothing was done for people in care homes. They were sitting ducks. The government has a legal duty to protect the most vulnerable. We have asked what steps were taken over the infamous protective ring around care homes, which was not there – we know it was not there.”

Dr Gardner, who represents Sidmouth Town on East Devon Council and is a member of the East Devon Alliance, has raised more than £130,000 with a public appeal to fund a legal challenge to the government, but the campaign is still £35,000 short of the total amount needed.

She said she was partly bringing the case in memory of her father, who was an assistant registrar and filled out thousands of death certificates. Dr Gardner said his own certificate is inaccurate as he was not tested for Covid, but it states his death was due to “probable” Covid-19, suspected to have been caught from a patient discharged from hospital to his care home in Oxfordshire.

Dr Gardner is bringing the judicial review alongside Fay Harris, whose father also died with Covid-19 in a care home. They argue certain key government policies and decisions led to a “shocking death toll” of more than 20,000 care home residents from Covid between March and June 2020. These include a policy of discharging around 25,000 patients from hospital into care homes – including the homes of the claimants’ fathers – without testing and proper isolation.

A judge has allowed the case to go forward to a full hearing which is due to take place over four days in the High Court, starting on Tuesday, October 19.

Dr Gardner said: “I would like the ministers involved to admit that they made mistakes, and that those mistakes cost lives. I am not interested in an apology, but I think the failure to apologise is disgusting. To me it is about admitting they were wrong. It is about the law, it is about, did you do what you were supposed to do?

“You had a legal duty to try and protect the elderly, just admit that you did not do it, and you should do better. Just have some humility about this, rather just waving the vaccine around like some shiny distraction.”

The claim to be heard in the High Court in London states that the Department for Health and Social Care, NHS England and Public Health England, “unlawfully failed to protect care home residents from the three principal routes of transmission of Covid: infection by other residents, by external visitors to care homes, and by care home staff.”

Dr Gardner said the claim sets out that the government failed to consider the health and wellbeing of care home residents when hospital patients were released without testing, or advice to care home staff on PPE or isolating new arrivals.

She said the government had so far refused to hand over key documents explaining why decisions were made.

Minister for the Cabinet Office Stephen Barclay defended the government’s handling of the pandemic. He told Sky News’ Kay Burley the Government “did take decisions to move quickly”, including on vaccines, and that both scientists and ministers were acting on information they had at the time.

However, he admitted he had “not had chance to read” the MPs’ report, which was circulated to the media under embargo on Monday morning and also sent to Government departments, including his own Cabinet Office.

Mr Barclay said: “It was an unprecedented pandemic, we were learning about it as we went through and of course, with hindsight, there’s things we know about it now that we didn’t know at the time.

“Of course there are going to be lessons to learn, that’s why we’ve committed to an inquiry, but the Government took decisions at the time based on the scientific advice it received, but those scientists themselves were operating in a very new environment where they themselves were learning about the pandemic.”

On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Barclay was asked if the Government was too slow to go into the first lockdown – a key criticism in the MPs’ report. He said: “Well I think there is an issue there of hindsight, because at the time of the first lockdown the expectation was that the tolerance in terms of how long people would live with lockdown for was a far shorter period than actually has proven to be the case, and therefore there was an issue of timing the lockdown and ensuring that that was done at the point of optimal impact.

“And so it is a point of hindsight to now say that the way that decision was shaped and how long we could lock down for… because we now know that there was much more willingness for the country to endure that than was originally envisaged.”

Mr Barclay denied there had been groupthink on handling the pandemic, even though former health secretary and fellow Tory MP Jeremy Hunt, who chairs the Commons health committee, said there had been.

“No, I don’t accept that, and we followed the scientific advice throughout. We protected the NHS from the surge of pressure that we saw in other countries, such as Italy, and we can’t apply hindsight to the challenges that we faced,” Mr Barclay said.

Asked whether he agreed, however, that it was an “appalling error” not to introduce a second lockdown earlier, even though scientists on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) recommended one six weeks before it was introduced, Mr Barclay said: “No I don’t, because I think there were difficult judgments to be made. We followed the scientific advice throughout, we took action to protect our NHS, we got a vaccine deployed in record time, but I don’t shy away from the fact that there will be lessons to learn.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, when Covid-19 emerged in China, MPs said the UK policy was to mistakenly take a “gradual and incremental approach” to interventions such as social distancing, isolation and lockdowns. They said this was “a deliberate policy” proposed by scientists and adopted by UK governments, which has now been shown to be “wrong” and led to a higher death toll.

The MPs concluded that the “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”.

After hearing evidence from people including the Prime Minister’s former adviser, Dominic Cummings, and former health secretary Matt Hancock, the MPs said it was only in the days leading up to the March 23 lockdown that people within Government and advisers “experienced simultaneous epiphanies that the course the UK was following was wrong, possibly catastrophically so”.

Speaking on Tuesday morning, Mr Hunt, who was health secretary from 2012 to 2018, admitted he was part of the “groupthink” that focused too much on flu and failed to adequately plan for a pandemic such as Covid.

He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain 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”.

Mr Hunt added: “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.”

Questioned on the impact of the Prime Minister’s personality early on in the pandemic, and whether Boris Johnson did not want to shut down the nation in case it was “unpopular”, Mr Hunt said that “every prime minister’s personality matters but in this particular case, on those particular decisions, 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 also said that when images of the pandemic in Italy hit TV screens in the UK, the focus was on hospitals rather than other places such as care homes.

He added: “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.”

Meanwhile, Tory MP Greg Clark, who chairs the Commons science committee, told BBC Breakfast that “other countries elsewhere in the world, particularly in East Asia” quickly mobilised testing capacity so they could test people in the community and isolate them, which “allowed them to get a grip of the pandemic earlier than we were able to do”.

He said increasing testing capacity in the UK was “painfully” slow, adding that if everyone coming out of hospital into a care home could have been tested “then undoubtedly we could have stopped the seeding of infections into care homes”.

In a joint statement on the publication of the Coronavirus: lessons learned to date Report, Mr Hunt and Mr Clark said: “The UK response has combined some big achievements with some big mistakes. It is vital to learn from both to ensure that we perform as best as we possibly can during the remainder of the pandemic and in the future.

“Our vaccine programme was boldly planned and effectively executed. Our test and trace programme took too long to become effective. The Government took seriously scientific advice but there should have been more challenge from all to the early UK consensus that delayed a more comprehensive lockdown when countries like South Korea showed a different approach was possible.

“In responding to an emergency, when much is unknown, it is impossible to get everything right. We record our gratitude to all those – NHS and care workers, scientists, officials in national and local government, workers in our public services and in private businesses and millions of volunteers – who responded to the challenge with dedication, compassion and hard work to help the whole nation at one of our darkest times.”

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