A minister has been accused of trying to blame victims for the UK’s high Covid death toll after saying so many died because of the country’s obesity problems.
Science minister George Freeman took to the airwaves yesterday to try to explain what went wrong after the Government’s initial pandemic response was heavily criticised.
Asked why the country has the highest death toll in Europe, he told the BBC: ‘A lot of that is actually to do with the very, very heavy obesity-related cardiometabolic chronic disease cohort that we’ve been carrying for years.
‘That’s a failure of public health in this country over decades.’
Ministers came out fighting yesterday after the publication of a highly critical report, highlighting errors which MPs claimed cost many thousands of lives.
A failure to lockdown early enough and introduce measures such as social distancing and isolation contributed to ‘one of the most important public health failures the UK has ever experienced’, the report said.
As the deaths of another 181 people with Covid were revealed yesterday —cabinet office minister Stephen Barclay admitted he had not read document, and rejected 20 invitations to apologise, insisting: ‘We followed the scientific advice, we protected the NHS and we took the decisions based on the evidence before us.’
Key figures including former health secretary Matt Hancock, chief scientist Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty gave evidence for the report.
It concluded a culture of ‘groupthink’ permeated Whitehall and that scientific advice should have been more transparent.
The Government appeared to have changed tack this morning, with former culture secretary Oliver Dowden, now Co-chairman of the Conservative Party, sent out to say sorry.
He told Sky: ‘We are sorry for the losses that all those families have suffered. Of course we accept…that this was an unprecedented crisis.
‘It is a once in a hundred years event. There isn’t some perfect rulebook that we could follow, we were having to adapt and move very quickly and of course we would do some things differently, with hindsight.’
The report found thousands died unnecessarily when they were sent from hospitals to care homes, and the Test and Trace system failed to prevent lockdowns despite ‘vast quantities of taxpayers’ money’.
Abandoning community testing was a ‘serious mistake’, it said, ministers failed to challenge scientific advice and their failure to see what was happening abroad left them in a ‘self-inflicted veil of ignorance’.
It is the biggest official investigation yet into the handling of the pandemic.
Committee chair Jeremy Hunt told Sky News yesterday: ‘We know some of that scientific advice was wrong but also that politicians should have challenged that advice.
‘You can’t just say, “We’re following the science” — you have to dig down and ask why scientists are saying what they’re saying. That challenge should have happened earlier.’
Victims’ groups branded the report ‘laughable’, criticising the MPs for not speaking to bereaved families and for suggesting deaths were ‘redeemed’ by the vaccine rollout.
They demanded families be at the heart of a promised public inquiry.
‘If it’s not bad enough Steve Barclay refusing to say sorry over a dozen times, we now have the science minister seemingly blaming the British people for the high death toll,’ said Lobby Akinnola, of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice.
‘It’s grossly offensive to those of us who lost loved ones and makes a mockery of our concerns. The statutory inquiry truly cannot come soon enough.’
Mr Barclay rejected the conclusion that ministers were wrong to delay lockdown and said they had not realised the public would do what was needed.
‘There is a wide range of views as to whether we locked down too much for too long,’ he said.
‘With hindsight we now know there was more tolerance for a longer lockdown than was understood at the time.’
Get in touch with our news team by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more stories like this, check our news page.