A cabinet minister repeatedly refused to apologise after a damning report declared the UK’s start to the pandemic was one of the worst public health failures ever.
Stephen Barclay was quizzed after a probe by MPs found thousands of lives were lost due to delays and mistakes made at the start of the pandemic by ministers and scientific advisers.
However, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster refused to apologise this morning saying: “If there are lessons to learn, we’re keen to do so.”
Sky News presenter Kay Burley asked him: “Keen start with an apology though I would have thought?”
Barclay replied: “Well, no, we followed the scientific advice, we protected the NHS, we took the decisions based on the evidence before us.
“But, of course, we’ve always said with something so unprecedented as the pandemic there will be lessons to learn. We’re keen to learn them - that’s why we’ve committed to an inquiry.”
He said the inquiry would be the opportunity to look at what could be done differently.
Presenter Burley pressed him again, saying: “We saw a young man who was lowered into the ground and his family couldn’t be there and they had to watch it on Zoom. 20,000 times that happened needlessly. How can you not say you’re sorry?
Barclay said it was “heartbreaking” but that the government had been working in an unprecedented time with “imperfect information”.
Barclay, who is also minister for the Cabinet Office, again refused to apologise on LBC, leaving exasperated host Nick Ferrari asking: “What’s so hard about the word ‘sorry’?”
Barclay told him: “I recognise it’s devastating and my heart goes out to any family, any of your listeners where they lost a loved one.”
He also admitted that he had not had a chance to read the report, adding: “Obviously the report came out at midnight, so I’ve not had an opportunity to read it as yet.”
The report released on Tuesday found many thousands of care home residents died needlessly in the pandemic.
It said the losses in care homes were among the highest in Europe – and could have been prevented. Instead, the elderly were an “afterthought”.
The cross party group of MPs also said ministers were blinded by “groupthink” among scientific advisers and slammed the “chaotic” performance of the £37billion test and trace system.
The MPs said early decisions on lockdowns and social distancing rank as “one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced”.
The report also criticised “light touch” border controls when it was evident cases were coming from abroad.
The joint report by the health and science committees of the House of Commons did outline some successes - in particular the vaccination programme.
It described the whole approach to vaccines as “one of the most effective initiatives in UK history”.
Tory MP Greg Clark, who chairs the Commons science committee, told BBC Breakfast the failure to implement an earlier lockdown was a “consensus decision”.
He added: “Everyone agreed that this was the right thing to do. We now know that it wasn’t – that is using the benefit of hindsight, but it’s important to do so.”
He said reasons for delaying lockdown included a “widespread assumption” that people wouldn’t obey lockdown measures for a very long period of time.
Clark also said the UK did not have enough testing capacity at the outset which meant they did not have information as to how quickly the virus was spreading, adding: “That means that we were operating in the dark.”
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the findings were “damning” and showed what “monumental errors” had been made.
A government spokesperson said lessons would be learned, which was why there would be a full public inquiry next year.
He added: “We have never shied away from taking quick and decisive action to save lives and protect our NHS, including introducing restrictions and lockdowns.”