Lancet editor attacks UK government for ‘catastrophic’ handling of Covid-19 pandemic

Richard Horton describes the management of the outbreak as ‘the greatest science policy failure of a generation’

Missed opportunities and appalling misjudgments by the government over its handing of the Covid-19 pandemic have led to the avoidable deaths of thousands of people.

That is the stark view of Lancet editor Richard Horton in an interview in the Observer’s New Review this week.

For good measure, Horton, who has been editor-in-chief of the Lancet for 25 years, also attacks the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) for becoming “the public relations wing of a government that had failed its people” and denounces Public Health England (PHE) for not taking proper note of the World Health Organization’s public health emergency warning about the disease.

He also dismisses the UK’s response to the emergence of the Covid-19 virus as “slow, complacent and flat-footed”, a reaction that show the government was “glaringly unprepared” for the pandemic.

Horton has been strident in his denunciation of Britain’s political leaders and health chiefs since the emergence of Covid-19 and now believes that to restore their damaged reputation those individuals need to acknowledge their mistakes. “I think that’s going to have to start with Sage, the chief scientific officer and the chief medical officer being very clear that the signals were missed from January,” says Horton. “Individually, they’re great people, but the system was a catastrophic failure.”

Why did the UK take so long to lock down, he asks, and why, despite all the warnings, first from China and then from Italy, did we seem to be caught unawares by the speed and lethality of the virus?

As editor of the Lancet, Horton was responsible for publishing a series of five academic papers in January that first described the novel coronavirus in detail and outlined measures for combating the outbreak. Several papers talked about the importance of personal protective equipment, testing, avoiding mass gatherings, school closure and lockdowns. “All of the things that have happened in the last three months, they’re all in those five papers.”


One comment

  1. Horton’s critique has many valid points. It should be read alongside the personal profile in the Guardian which makes clear his contribution to a recent public health disaster with his publication and failure to retract the Wakefield paper on MMR vaccination.
    How so ever the final outcome, UK’s perceived competence in public health will be severely dinted by its response to SARS- 2/ Covid 19 pandemic in the eyes of the world. Despite the warning in the “Hine ‘ report into the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, there has been over reliance on mathematical modelling at the expense of local on the ground public health infrastructure to follow WHO guidance. The Lansley NHS ‘ reforms’ of 2012, setting up Public Health England within the civil service and the passing, unasked, of public health to local government at a time of severe cuts. will be key areas of scrutiny in the inevitable public inquiry. Government has no doubt secured the contract for endless whitewash already, in contrast to its dilatory purchase of reagents for Covid testing.
    Why Scotland has not performed significantly better will be of interest. I am surprised the FM kept as close to UK policy for so long, and that question may need a separate independent review.

Leave a Reply