A study by a joint committee of British MPs has described the UK government's early response to the Covid-19 pandemic as one of the worst national public health failures ever.

Their wide-ranging report claims that both ministers and scientists waited too long to enforce lockdowns last year at the cost of many lives and that the people in power did not efficiently examine, question or challenge the advice they were given.

It said serious errors and delays, including on testing, care homes and the timing of the first lockdown cost lives during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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 and both scientists and ministers waited too long to push through lockdown measures in early 2020.

It noted that 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 "group think", with infectious disease experts not believing that "SARS, or another SARS, would get from Asia to us."

It said that the UK's national risk register in place at the start of the pandemic said "the likelihood of an emerging infectious disease spreading within the UK is assessed to be lower than that of a pandemic flu".

It noted that the register also said only up to 100 people may die.

The UK policy, once Covid emerged, was to take a "gradual and incremental approach" to interventions such as social distancing, isolation and lockdowns.

MPs said this was "a deliberate policy" proposed by scientists and adopted by the UK government, which has now been shown to be wrong and led to a higher death toll.

Minister for the Cabinet Office Stephen Barcley said the government "did take decisions to move quickly".

He told Sky News: "The decisions were taken on the evidence and the scientific advice at the time, they were taken to protect the NHS.

"The understanding of issues such as asymptomatic infection and how that spread the disease, we now know far more about that than we did in 2020 at the start of the pandemic."

However, the report goes on to say 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."

While allowing people to become infected early on to reach herd immunity was not an official government strategy, there was a "policy approach of fatalism about the prospects for Covid in the community", the report noted.

There was a policy of seeking to only moderate the speed of infection through the population - flattening the curve - rather than seeking to stop its spread.

"The policy was pursued until 23 March because of the official scientific advice the government received, not in spite of it," the report said.

Even as late as 12 March 2020, Patrick Vallance, the government's chief scientific adviser, told a government press conference that it was not possible to stop everyone being infected, and nor was that a desirable objective.

The report highlighted that the following day, members of Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) also said they were "unanimous that measures seeking to completely suppress spread of Covid-19 will cause a second peak."

It was therefore only in the days leading up to the 23 March first lockdown that people within government and advisers "experienced simultaneous epiphanies that the course the UK was following was wrong, possibly catastrophically so."

A paper from Imperial College London said an unmitigated epidemic could result in 510,000 UK deaths.

MPs said it was "astonishing" it took so long for SAGE to say a full lockdown was needed and for the government to implement one. MPs said a lockdown had been inevitable.

MPs said the UK was too slow to bring in isolation of infected people and their households, compared with other countries such as those in Asia.

They said the UK implemented "light-touch border controls" only on countries with high Covid rates, even though 33% of cases during the first wave were introduced from Spain and 29% from France.

They said that earlier social distancing and locking down "would have bought much-needed time" for vaccine research to bear fruit, for Covid treatments to be developed and for a proper test and trace system to be set up.

Their report noted that "early weeks of the pandemic expose deficiencies in both scientific advice and government action", with no real idea of how far the virus had spread and a downplaying of the role of asymptomatic transmission.

It said the decision not to test people being discharged from hospitals to care homes early on was a failure and led to deaths in care homes.

Social care "had a less prominent voice in government during the early stages of the pandemic than did the NHS."

MPs said if more stringent social distancing measures been adopted during the autumn they could have "reduced the seeding of the Alpha variant across the country, slowed its spread and therefore have saved lives".

However, they said it was true that the Alpha variant only became known about in December 2020.

It noted that there was an "unacceptably high death rates among people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities". Increased exposure to Covid as a result of people's housing and working conditions played a significant role.

In a joint statement, Tory MPs Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt, who chair the committees, said: "The UK response has combined some big achievements with some big mistakes. It is vital to learn from both to ensure that we perform as best as we possibly can during the remainder of the pandemic and in the future.

"Our vaccine programme was boldly planned and effectively executed. Our test and trace programme took too long to become effective.

"The government took seriously scientific advice but there should have been more challenge from all to the early UK consensus that delayed a more comprehensive lockdown when countries like South Korea showed a different approach was possible.