LONDON — 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.'s 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 assumption was “completely wrong” and a “colossal” failure, Hancock said.
Hancock acknowledged 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 consumed 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 failed to manage 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, Hancock was confronted by members of the group COVID Families for Justice who held up pictures of relatives who died in the pandemic as he arrived at the inquiry in central 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.
Senior politicians have been called to face questions. Last week, former Prime Minister David Cameron testified that the U.K. had prepared for the “wrong” pandemic by focusing too much on the dangers of a flu outbreak. Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt echoed that argument when he admitted he didn't challenge “groupthink” based around preparing for a flu pandemic.