Sir Patrick Vallance said he was concerned about the government's “operational response” to contain the spread of Covid-19 in the early months of the pandemic.
The former chief scientific adviser – one of the government's most senior advisers during the pandemic – told the UK Covid-19 inquiry that it was uncertain at the end of January 2020 whether the coronavirus would become a major problem for the UK.
But as the weeks passed, it became clear that the pandemic was much more advanced than anyone had thought and swift action was needed, he said.
Andrew O'Connor KC, a consultant to the inquiry, asked Sir Patrick about discussions in February 2020 about measures to avoid the collapse of the NHS.
Sir Patrick said then prime minister Boris Johnson had begun to consider lockdown options, saying: “There was a lot of evidence that there were things that needed to happen in order to get the curve flattened.
“I'm not convinced there's been a very effective operational response to this.”
The top scientist told the inquiry that there was an “urgent recognition” in mid-March 2020 that strong measures were needed to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
He said: “I think the new understanding over the weekend of March 14 and 15 was that we were much further ahead in the pandemic than we had realized and the numbers that came in that week showed that there were many more cases, it was much more widespread and it was accelerating faster than expected.
“This is what triggered an urgent recognition that this was an immediate problem of the collapse of the NHS, not something that was weeks away with the possibility of introducing measures at a more relaxed pace.
“So that weekend was a sharp acceleration and indeed an intensification of the measures required to stop this.”
Sir Patrick said the focus on trying to get the timing “just right” for when to introduce measures to crack down on Covid “was misguided”.
He added: “It was a mistake to think you could be so precise. I'm afraid that's a very important lesson that came out of it – you have to go early.”
Sir Patrick also told the inquiry that “there were a lot of emails and charts and things that were presented at Cobra meetings… talking about the combination of NPIs (non-pharmacological interventions) that would be required to reduce the spread and bring the R under 1”.
He added: “The question was, when and how much to do it? And this, unfortunately, was not reflected in operational readiness.
“So the piece that I think is missing is whether the business development plans to do this, in the short term, were as advanced as they should have been, and they weren't.”
Sir Patrick said there was “inadequate scale of facilities” to carry out testing and tracing through Public Health England “but also the plans to introduce NPIs… given that they have been outlined quite early there should have been an operational plan to make them ready to pull the trigger as soon as they are needed.
“And what we're seeing is that it takes a long time to actually operate and put the process in place to do that. I think that's kind of a lesson learned – that you have to start earlier.”
Sir Patrick highlighted how Andrew Parker, the previous head of MI5, had heeded the warnings in early February and had begun organizing his department in response.
He added: “I am not sure that this urgent action was as consistent and as credible as it should have been across Whitehall at the time.”
The Covid inquiry also heard that pandemic modelers had “great difficulty in getting the NHS numbers clear” – the point at which the NHS would be overwhelmed.