A minister has been accused of claiming the UK has a high Covid death toll because it has so many obese people.
George Freeman, the science minister, was seeking to defend the government’s initial respond to the pandemic on Tuesday after a damning report by a group of cross-party MPs accused it of a severe public health failure.
Asked to explain why Britain has the highest death toll in Europe, he told the BBC: “A lot of that is actually to do with the very, very heavy obesity-related cardio metabolic chronic disease cohort that we’ve been carrying for years.
“That’s a failure of public health in this country over decades.”
Serious errors and delays at the hands of the government and scientific advisers cost lives during the Covid-19 pandemic, MPs said on Tuesday.
The study, from the cross-party 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.
In a wide-ranging report, MPs said the UK’s pandemic planning was too “narrowly and inflexibly based on a flu model” that failed to learn the lessons from Sars, Mers and Ebola.
Former chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies told MPs there was “groupthink”, with infectious disease experts not believing that “Sars, or another Sars, would get from Asia to us”.
Once Covid-19 emerged in China, MPs said the UK policy was to take a “gradual and incremental approach” to interventions such as social distancing, isolation and lockdowns.
In their study, 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.
The MPs said 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”.
And Dr David Strain, the clinical lead for Covid services at the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust, told the i newspaper that Freeman’s claim was “simply untrue”.
“At the best this comment is scapegoating for governmental inaction early in the pandemic whilst is highly inflammatory against a population who have underlying metabolic disease,” he said.
“The example to counter this would be Saudi Arabia that has much higher rates of obesity but a co-ordinated central response prevented anything like the death toll we have seen.”
Saudi Arabia has recorded fewer than 10,000 Covid-related deaths since the pandemic began – and has a significantly higher obesity rate in its male and female adult population.