Sheffield Covid response: health chief looks back as Government defends its approach to pandemic

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As the Government defends its handling of the coronavirus pandemic in Parliament, Sheffield’s health chief has looked back on what was done well by local authorities here and what could have been done better.

What did the joint select committee say about the Government’s handling of the pandemic?

Today, a report published by the joint select committees concluded that that serious errors in the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has cost thousands of lives, and branded it one of the UK’s worst public health failures.

Greg FellGreg Fell
Greg Fell

The report, from MPs on the Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee, said the UK’s preparation for a pandemic was far too focused on flu, while ministers waited too long to push through lockdown measures in early 2020.

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Who is Greg Fell?

And while Sheffield’s director for public health Greg Fell declined to comment on the central Government’s approach, he did say that he felt that Sheffield had done well with its vaccine rollout and once local authorities assumed responsibility for contact tracing.

Mr Fell said: “What the central Government did right and wrong is something for Parliament to debate.

“I wish we had been able to establish the resources to set up the kind of response we managed to set up after summer 2020 earlier on. That is things like local contact tracing, and access to isolation vans. The reality is, although I wish we could have set it up earlier, there were not the resources to do that straight away.

“But when we did get this all set up it did work well, and it has continued to work well. I think we did a good job of access to testing, and local contact tracing when we had control over that. Testing worked well, and that is thanks to Sheffield Virology Lab.

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“It was so successful that Sheffield was a ‘hotspot’ for a while. That is because when you look you find and in Sheffield we were testing a lot more. Sheffield prioritised this long before the Government did and this enabled us to get a much clearer picture early on to work with on control measures.

“We delivered the vaccine programme quickly and we got numbers you can only dream of compared to things like the flu vaccine. That saved hundreds of lives and thousands of people being admitted to hospital. The vaccine programme did not happen by accident. There was a lot of work in the background from doctors, nurses, communications, logistics.”

He added: “We also provided support to people who needed to isolate. I wish it was able to be set up earlier, but it has worked well.

“And I think we did a good job of communications. I have always tried to speak openly, plainly and honestly and I have always said the same thing. You can only get through to those who are prepared to listen, but for those who listened what we said did not keep changing.”

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Is Sheffield a Covid hotspot?

Last October, the Government confirmed that local authorities would be handed greater resources to manage their own response to the pandemic, including passing on much of the responsibility for contact tracing.

Speaking to The Star previously, Mr Fell said that once such responsibilities were in local hands – which happened later than he would have liked – the pandemic response improved greatly, thanks to a ‘better knowledge of the population’ and more success at getting in touch with people who needed to isolate.

In that same interview, Mr Fell said that whether the Government locked down early enough ‘was a question for an enquiry’ and added that people in Sheffield were calling for a lockdown earlier, but only central Government had the power to introduce the measure.

In spite of this, Mr Fell did admit to some deficiencies in the way the local authorities dealt with Covid-19, primarily around understanding how the disease spread.

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He explained: “Early on on a local level we went into it with an ‘infectious disease playbook’ which said the important thing was to manage the spread of Covid-19.

“We needed to recognise the importance of some of the structural issues about why people get infected. We did not recognise that early enough.

“Early on we assumed it was because people did not follow rules, and there were always going to be people who did not follow the rules.

“But many were affected for other reasons, like over crowded housing, or the fact they had jobs that they could not do from home. It was not always the case that they were just not following rules.

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“I also wish we had pushed the mask up message earlier on. We didn’t really know if masks would make that much difference but they do and we should have done more on that earlier on.”

In the wide-ranging study into the national Government’s response to the pandemic, stretching to 151 pages, MPs criticised the fact community testing was abandoned in March 2020 as a “seminal error”, said NHS test and trace was too slow and failed to have a big impact. It added that thousands of people died in care homes partly due to a policy of discharging people from hospital without testing.

At the beginning of the pandemic, when Covid-19 emerged in China, MPs said the UK policy was to mistakenly take a “gradual and incremental approach” to interventions such as social distancing, isolation and lockdowns.

They said this was “a deliberate policy” proposed by scientists and adopted by UK governments, which has now been shown to be “wrong” and led to a higher death toll.

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The MPs concluded that the “decisions on lockdowns and social distancing during the early weeks of the pandemic – and the advice that led to them – rank as one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced”.