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The former chief medical officer for England has issued an emotional apology to the Covid bereaved as it emerged she asked for a preparedness review following an earlier coronavirus outbreak in Hong Kong but was told “it won’t come here”.
Prof Dame Sally Davies, who described her role as CMO from 2010 to 2019 as “the nation’s doctor”, was being cross-examined at the UK Covid-19 public inquiry about shortcomings in the nation’s preparedness when she said “maybe this is the moment to say how sorry I am to the relatives who lost their families”.
Close to tears, Davies said: “It wasn’t just the deaths, it was the way they died. It was horrible. And I heard a lot about it from my daughter on the frontline, as a young doctor in Scotland. It was harrowing and it remains horrible.”
She also said sorry for the failure of the government to plan for lockdowns, and said of the effects on children: “We have damaged a generation and it is awful.”
Davies said there had been too much “groupthink” and there should have been more external challenge to the UK’s approach of planning mainly for a flu pandemic.
“I tried,” she said. “Following a visit to Hong Kong where I learned a lot about Sars, I did ask unofficially ‘what about doing a Sars review’ and was told ‘oh no it won’t come here.’”
The Department of Health and Social Care has already told the inquiry it would have benefited from a fuller understanding of the response by Asian countries to previous coronavirus outbreaks, including Sars and Mers, said Hugo Keith KC, counsel to the inquiry. Death tolls in several Asian countries from Covid-19 were far lower than the UK.
The UK had an influenza pandemic strategy document, which said the plan could be adapted for a Sars outbreak. Asked why a strategy for a non-flu pandemic was not produced, Davies said she preferred to run exercises gauging preparedness, such as those that were run for E coli and Mers – the latter in 2016 and known as exercise Alice. “There was more we should have done,” she said.
Davies was speaking after the former chancellor George Osborne denied austerity had left Britain vulnerable, as the public inquiry continued its six-week investigation into UK preparedness.
She attacked disinvestment in public health in the years before the pandemic, saying: “You can’t get a good outcome if you don’t have resilience in the public’s health, resilience in the public health system – it has been disinvested in.
“And on comparator data … we were at the bottom of the table on number of doctors, number of beds, number of ITUs [intensive therapy units], number of ventilators. We needed resilience in social care. That was clearly missing.”
After David Cameron gave evidence on Monday, Osborne defended spending cuts in the 2010s. “If we had not had a clear plan to put the public finances on a sustainable path then Britain might have experienced a fiscal crisis, we would not have had the fiscal space to deal with the coronavirus pandemic when it hit,” said Osborne.
Asked whether he saw no connection between austerity and Covid disproportionately affecting the most disadvantaged people, Osborne said: “That’s absolutely my contention.”
The Trades Union Congress, a core participant in the inquiry, said Osborne was “trying to rewrite history and gaslight the British public”.
Also on Tuesday, the former Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin, responsible for emergency planning in the coalition government, said Britain’s whole system of critical national infrastructure remains “wildly under-resilient”.
He said it was an “error” that no government had appointed a senior minister with sole responsibility over planning for pandemics and other areas of resilience. He described the churn of ministers and officials tasked with preparing for emergencies as a “disaster for the country”.
The inquiry continues on Wednesday with the cross-examination of the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, who was previously the health secretary.