UK was ill-prepared for pandemic because resources were diverted to Brexit, ex-health chief says

UK was ill-prepared for pandemic because resources were diverted to Brexit, ex-health chief says

LONDON (AP) — Britain was ill-prepared for a pandemic partly because government resources had been diverted away from pandemic planning to brace for a possibly chaotic exit from the European Union without a deal, the U.K.’s former health secretary told an inquiry Tuesday.

Matt Hancock also said officials had to scramble to source protective equipment, set up mass testing and contact tracing systems “from scratch” once the coronavirus pandemic broke out because the U.K. planning attitude was entirely “geared towards how to clear up after a disaster, not prevent it.”

“The doctrine of the U.K. was to plan for the consequences of a disaster — can we buy enough body bags? Where are we going to bury the dead?” Hancock said.

“Large-scale testing did not exist and large-scale contact tracing did not exist because it was assumed that as soon as there was community transmission, it wouldn’t be possible to stop the spread, and therefore, what’s the point in contact tracing?” he added. “That was completely wrong.”

Hancock acknowledged that a decade-old government document on preparing for a pandemic was never updated, and that an official pandemic preparedness board paused its work in 2018 to 2019 because resources were moved away to focus instead on the threat of a “disorganized Brexit.”

Britain’s government was preoccupied in 2019 with the possibility of crashing out of the EU without a deal on the departure terms in place. A bitterly divided Parliament rejected then-Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plan three times.

The U.K. eventually left the trade bloc in 2020.

As health secretary, Hancock became one of the best-known politicians in Britain as he led efforts to halt the spread of the coronavirus before he was forced to quit in June 2021, when he was caught breaking social distancing rules with an aide. Pictures of him kissing the aide in government offices were splashed across front pages at the time.

Hancock has previously faced criticism about the U.K.’s COVID testing measures and how authorities managed the spread of the pandemic in care homes for the elderly. The U.K. had one of the highest COVID-19 death tolls in Europe, with the virus recorded as a cause of death for almost 227,000 people.

Hancock said an emotional sorry Tuesday to all those who died and were affected.

“I’m profoundly sorry for each death that has occurred. I also understand why, for some, it will be hard to take that apology from me,” he said.

Earlier, members of the group COVID Families for Justice held up pictures of relatives who died in the pandemic as Hancock arrived at the inquiry in London.

The wide-ranging inquiry, led by a retired judge, aims to investigate the U.K.’s preparedness for the coronavirus pandemic, how the government responded and what lessons can be learned for the future. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who led the U.K. during the pandemic, agreed in late 2021 to hold the probe after heavy pressure from bereaved families.

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