The UK response to covid-19: use of scientific advice Contents



1.A coronavirus is a common type of virus that can cause intestinal and respiratory illness in humans and animals, with symptoms including fever, coughing and more severe issues including pneumonia. Seven different coronaviruses have been found in humans, which mostly cause cold-like symptoms, except for the viruses that cause severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and covid-19.3

2.The emergence of a novel coronavirus, previously unseen in humans, was first reported in the city of Wuhan in China on 31 December 2019.4 The first case of the novel disease outside of China was reported on 13 January in Thailand.5 On 22 January, the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a statement saying there was some evidence of human-to-human transmission.6 On 30 January 2020, the WHO declared the outbreak a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’.7 On 31 January 2020, the first two cases of covid-19 were confirmed in the UK (in England).8 The first death from covid-19 in the UK (in England) was announced on 5 March.9 On 11 March, the WHO “made the assessment that covid-19 can be characterized as a pandemic”.10

3.The International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses (responsible for naming all new viruses) named the 2019 coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and the disease caused by the virus was named covid-19 by the WHO.11 In this Report we use covid-19 to refer to the disease and ‘coronavirus’ to refer to the virus.

Our inquiry

4.On 10 March 2020, we held a wide-ranging private briefing to gain an overview of the scientific understanding of covid-19 and to explore issues relating to diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.12 On 20 March the Committee launched a call for written evidence as part of our inquiry, UK Science, Research and Technology Capability and Influence in Global Disease Outbreaks. We sought views relating to a number of issues in relation to managing a disease outbreak.

5.Between 25 March and 3 November 2020, we held 15 public evidence sessions. We took evidence from over 50 individuals, including the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock MP, the UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Medical Officers from the four nations of the UK, Public Health England, NHS England, participants of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, those involved in developing vaccines and treatments and many others.13 We received over 100 pieces of written evidence from a similarly broad range of individuals and organisations.14 We are grateful to all those who provided oral and written evidence to our inquiry.

6.Recognising that further scrutiny of the pandemic would be necessary over the winter months, on 8 October we launched a joint inquiry with the Health and Social Care Committee into coronavirus: lessons learnt.15 This Report does not cover that work.

Aims of this Report

7.In this Report we focus on the science advice provided to the UK Government leading up to November 2020 and we also analyse the Government’s response to it. While some of the evidence we have considered applies to the whole of the United Kingdom, much of our commentary focuses on the decisions and actions of the UK Government and public bodies in England.

8.The purpose of this Report is not to apportion blame, nor is it to give an overall verdict of how the UK has performed—the time for such an evaluation will come. We therefore seek in this Report to take a balanced, objective and constructive approach, highlighting where things could have and should have been better, where the Government has taken the right approach, and identifying where the Government has the opportunity to learn lessons for future phases of handling the virus in the UK.

9.Our decision to take evidence during a live emergency scenario—with its inherent uncertainty—was deliberate. The reasons for this are to identify lessons to apply immediately, as described above, but also to ensure that there is a public record of the decisions and assessments made throughout the pandemic, so that future scrutiny does not need to rely on recollections and hindsight. This is also why in May we wrote to the Prime Minister with some of our initial findings (see Annex One for a copy of the letter).16

10.Our efforts as a Committee have, as reflected throughout this Report, focused predominantly on the scientific and technical advice that was drawn upon in the early stages of the pandemic. We have also taken a great interest in understanding the interventions taken in other countries, as scientific evidence and discussion are global by nature and therefore there may be appropriate learnings to take from the experiences of others. While scrutiny of the operational aspects of dealing with the novel coronavirus are rightly the reserve of other departmental Select Committees, we believe it is important that we consider how operational decision-making and advice have been structured during this period, so that we may reflect more fully on whether scientific advisory mechanisms have been fit for purpose.

11.In this Report:

3 UK Research and Innovation, Coronavirus: the science explained, accessed 4 December 2020

4 World Health Organisation, Listings of WHO’s response to COVID-19, accessed 4 December 2020

5 World Health Organisation, WHO statement on novel coronavirus in Thailand, 13 January 2020

6 World Health Organisation, Mission summary: WHO Field Visit to Wuhan, China, 22 January 2020

7 World Health Organisation, Listings of WHO’s response to COVID-19, accessed 4 December 2020

10 World Health Organisation, Listings of WHO’s response to COVID-19, accessed 4 December 2020

11 World Health Organisation, Naming the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and the virus that causes it, accessed 4 December 2020

12 Science and Technology Committee, Committee scrutinises UK response to COVID-19 outbreak, 20 March 2020

15 Health and Social Care Committee and Science and Technology Committee, Parliamentary Committees join forces: Inquiry launched to scrutinise Government response to the COVID-19 pandemic, 8 October 2020

Published: 8 January 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement