It’s hard to think of a more important recent public inquiry than the Covid-19 inquiry. There have been public inquiries before – the Hillsborough disaster, the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war, and the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday. The Covid inquiry, led by Baroness Hallett, is arguably more far-reaching than British public life has ever known. The remit is so large it has had to be broken up into five sections, or modules.
While the world’s eye has been focused – understandably – for the last several weeks on Gaza, the Covid inquiry has been pushed away from the front pages and away from public attention. The consequence has been that important developments have been allowed to go un-noticed by the general public. Here’s a brief rundown of what you may have missed from the initial weeks of the Covid-19 inquiry, and what it tells us about British government today.
‘A tragic joke’
Sometimes, it’s interesting to speculate what Boris Johnson must be thinking on the long dark nights of the soul. While busily working away on his memoirs, he must be going over what the inquiry will say about crucial decisions he made during the early months of the crisis. It transpires that Johnson described long Covid as “bollocks”. It later transpired that long Covid has been associated with other health conditions related to the heart and lungs.
The fact that the former prime minister could appear to be so blasé about something as debilitating as long Covid, only confirms what most of the public have known about Johnson for a very long time; he is arrogant, lazy, shiftless, and incapable of thought or application. The tragedy for the bereaved families of Covid-19 is that they had the great misfortune to be governed by a leader who was apparently incapable of appreciating the seriousness of what unfolded month after month.
Perhaps the most damaging revelations to have emerged from the Covid-19 inquiry have been around the ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ campaign (EOHO). Originally launched just after the first lockdown came to an end in July 2020, it now emerges that government scientists had serious reservations about the scheme. Government scientists had no knowledge of EOHO before it was announced. The inquiry heard Dame Angela MacLean describe the then chancellor, Rishi Sunak, as ‘Doctor Death’.
The criticism from various government scientists against not only Sunak, but also Johnson and the whole machinery of British government, could not be more serious. Government scientists have seen EOHO as being instrumental in fanning the flame of the virus, with Sunak being accused of failing to recognise the risks of a second wave.
The inquiry has shown that the machinery of British government was fundamentally dysfunctional. Government scientists would make recommendations to the prime minister and the chancellor, which were either ignored – or as in the case of EOHO, the demands and dictates of the hospitality industry were allowed to trump concerns about the public health.
‘Outcomes and consequences’
There’s a strange poetry in the fact that the Conservative government effectively conjured up millions of pounds for a new swanky and swish West Wing-style press briefing room, while at the same time (as we now know) Britain’s schools, hospitals and airports were crumbling. That, in a nutshell, demonstrates just how badly the public has been served by its government; the high priority is optics, presentation, spin, perception, image control, while the fabric of life has just been allowed to rot and decay.
If you can understand that, you can understand why the government’s reaction to the crisis was so poor. Most of the Conservative MPs and cabinet ministers did not expect to be overseeing a massive increase in public spending which would grind the wheels of the market to a halt, only four months after the December 2019 general election.
Watching the inquiry unfold, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the personnel at the heart of government – Johnson, Sunak, Dominic Cummings, Matt Hancock, and the ministers in charge – simply could not cope with an existential crisis which was fundamentally at odds with what they came into politics to do. If given a choice between protecting the public health, and the health of the market or the government’s image, they frequently chose the latter.
There is a more important party involved who deserve more of our attention than either the government or the opposition, and that is the victims of Covid-19. The group Covid-19 Families for Justice believe that Johnson may be guilty of committing gross negligence, or even manslaughter.
The fact that the prime minister, who at the crest of the crisis was touted by admirers as the Winston Churchill de nos jours might very well end up facing a charge of corporate manslaughter, is a damning indictment of the British government’s handling of the crisis. Johnson’s star has fallen considerably since the spring of 2020; it will fall even further by the time the inquiry finally delivers its report in 2027.