Jeremy Hunt Says the Govt Thought COVID Would Be Unstoppable

Peter Russell

Disclosures

July 10, 2020

The Government may have wasted precious time at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic with an assumption that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was unstoppable, the former Health Secretary has said.

Jeremy Hunt said: "I was very puzzled by the fact that all the public messaging that we were getting from the Government, and the Government scientists, was about a pandemic that was inevitably going to end up affecting 50% to 60% of the population."

Mr Hunt, now the chair of the Commons Health and Social Care Committee, said while it would be very unfair to say they embraced a policy of herd immunity, "they just thought it was inevitable that this was going to sweep through huge parts of the population".

Jeremy Hunt

The Asian Experience

Speaking at an In Conversation Live event with the Royal Society of Medicine President Prof Sir Simon Wessely on Wednesday, he said the UK should have taken more notice of events in Wuhan and elsewhere in China where "less than 1% of the population had actually been infected before they were managing to turn things round".

Mr Hunt, whose wife is Chinese, said: "I think probably the biggest reason that we didn't look closely enough about what was happening in Asia… was the fact that China is not a democracy, doesn't share our democratic values – so there was a sense that it was very difficult."

He said "ignorance" about Asia led us to expect that some of the lockdown and social distancing measures that were being applied there would not work in the West "because Asians are just more obedient", whereas "anyone who has any experience of Korea or Taiwan knows these are incredibly robust democracies, and the one term you would never use if you were talking about a Korean is the word 'obedient'".

The UK Government's delay in ordering a lockdown on the 23rd March was "because we thought people will only accept it for a very limited period of time, so we mustn't go in too early" to avoid the risk of public fatigue.

"It wasn't until we saw it happening in Italy – a fellow European country, a fellow democracy – that we realised people would subject themselves to a lockdown."

In 2016, the UK held a test-drill for a major pandemic sweeping the country. However, Operation Cygnus, which took place during Mr Hunt's tenure as Health Secretary, assumed the outbreak would be influenza, despite the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) the previous year, and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS, due to SARS-CoV-1) in 2003.

"And yet we were still putting all our effort and energy into a flu response," said Mr Hunt.

He continued: "I think that the big thing that we need to think about is how to tackle the 'group think', really, that basically meant that Western countries, because we experienced flu and not SARS, based all our preparations around flu and not SARS."

However, he said it was important not to rush to judgement on politicians and scientists planning a response to the pandemic in January. That included a plan to protect the NHS, which led to untested patients being transferred into the social care system.

"At the time, if you remember, Sir Patrick Vallance [the Government's chief scientific adviser], said that we are only 4 weeks behind Italy in the progression of the disease. We actually now think it was more like 2 to 3 weeks behind Italy.

"So, that was what people were worried about, and so it's absolutely right to take every measure we could to empty our hospitals and create capacity."

However, the consequence was that hospitals discharged asymptomatic patients into care homes without testing. "Compare that to countries like Germany who had rules in place that said that care homes were not allowed to accept patients from hospitals unless they could quarantine them for 2 weeks."

Mr Hunt said he did not want to point any fingers for shortcomings. He praised Sir Patrick and Prof Chris Whitty, the Government's chief health adviser, for their "outstanding" advice.

"I think what you have to do is to look at the systems we have, and I think politicians and scientists have to share responsibility for our response, including the politicians who were in office before this happened and were responsible for the preparation, such as myself."

There should be "more transparency on scientific advice".

Reform of Social Care

Mr Hunt said: "The lesson is that the one thing that has to come out of this terrible crisis is a long-term settlement of the social care system – proper funding, integration with health. 

"I fought very hard when I was arguing for the £20 billion rise in the NHS budget. I said, we've got to do the same for the social care sector; we need to have a 10 year plan, a long-term funding settlement, and I was told that it has to come afterwards, we'll do the NHS first, and then we'll do the social care system."

"And then I moved to the Foreign Office. But that was 2 years ago. We've just got to do this now – it's absolutely essential."

Mr Hunt called for a more comprehensive COVID-19 testing programme targeting certain cohorts, as well as people in particular parts of the country, to better track infections.

He said: "I think looking at healthcare staff, looking at taxi drivers is another group, airport arrivals is another group.

"I think we need to think about mass testing amongst groups of the population as well as parts of the country like Leicester and so on, as our best way of finding out where the asymptomatics are and feeding them into the system so that their contacts can be isolated."
 

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