Analysing the UK media coverage from the first months of the pandemic, Professor Martin Powell (HSMC), Dr Sophie King-Hill (HSMC) and Professor Ian Greener (University of Strathclyde) highlight the complexity of lesson-drawing for policy makers in ‘real time’ during a period of considerable uncertainty.

Their new publication in the journal Social Policy and Society tracks how newspapers reported interventions that proved effective in previous pandemics (Ebola, Zika, the 1918 flu pandemic), as well as early responses to COVID particularly in China, in Italy as the first European country with a major outbreak, and then later Germany with a response in marked contrast the UK’s.

Broadly, what emerged as key lessons in relation to the unfolding pandemic were “openness, transparency and free speech (China); speed and strength of ‘lockdown’ (China), test, trace and isolate (Germany, Korea), preparedness and infrastructure (mainly East Asian nations after SARS and MERS), and lack of hospital beds (especially ITU beds, and lack of PPE) (Italy)”.

The authors conclude that “the UK did not learn available lessons in terms of pandemic response with sufficient seriousness, sufficiently quickly, having regarded reports from China with suspicion, and then treating it as an NHS hospital problem rather than a wider public health one”. They contrast the UK’s policy response with that of Germany, arguing that “the lessons learned from China and Italy put the UK and Germany on policy trajectories which emphasised the strengths (Germany) and weaknesses (the UK) of the wider health and political systems in each country”.