As the Covid-19 inquiry has proceeded, it is worth reflecting on what we’ve learned so far, and what it tells us about the current state of British parliamentary government. Was there anything that the cabinet and Number 10 did that exacerbated the crisis rather than resolve it? And what have we learned from the government scientists and ministers, including Michael Gove and Matt Hancock, both of whom have appeared at the inquiry in the last weeks?
Scientists, politicians and bunny-hopping
This month is the second module of the five-module inquiry. The first module focused on Britain’s preparedness. The second focuses on decision-making by the government in the early days of the pandemic. The scientists responsible for advising Boris Johnson and his team of advisers have been able to provide clear evidence about why they gave the advice they ultimately gave, what the outcome was, and what, on reflection, was wrong or could have been done differently.
The evidence from the government’s top scientists has opened a rare window into how government works. Peering into that window is an often-uncomfortable experience. Sir Chris Whitty was admirably honest about the shortcomings of the ‘messaging’ to the public. Sir Jonathan Van Tam and other scientists bemoaned the inability or unwillingness of leading politicians, including Johnson, to grasp key scientific concepts.
More interestingly, multiple people giving evidence to the inquiry have frequently bemoaned Johnson’s dithering and delay. Whitty described the government as “bunny-hopping” from one option to another without deciding on one course of action and sticking to it. Sir Patrick Vallance in his diary records Johnson having one day said, with reference to the virus: “let it all rip.” Vallance clarified to the inquiry that Johnson might easily have said the next day he wanted no deaths at all.
A tale of two lockdowns
Of all the non-pharmaceutical interventions used by the government to prevent the spread of the virus, none have been as contentious as the lockdown. The first lockdown in March 2020 acted like a lightning rod for a large number of anti-modern, anti-scientific, anti-government populist protests all over the world. The evidence given to the inquiry doesn’t support the view, widely held on the populist right, that the negative impacts of lockdown outweigh whatever benefit the lockdown brought to containing the virus, if any.
Time and again, scientific advisers and government ministers, including Hancock and Gove, neither of whom are state interventionists by instinct, repeatedly said that the decision to delay lockdown resulted in more avoidable deaths. Hancock told the inquiry that if a lockdown had been brought in earlier, tens of thousands of lives would have been saved.
Van Tam recounted a similar story regarding the debate, within government in autumn 2020, about whether to implement a short-term ’circuit breaker’ lockdown aimed at preventing a deadly winter outbreak of the virus. In relation to Eat Out to Help Out, Van Tam said the scheme was no different to “any other epidemiological event that brought households into close contact with each other for the purposes of socialising, eating and consuming alcohol”. He went on to say that the scheme likely increased the spread of the virus, effectively undoing the hard work by government, the public, and key workers.
Although there are a few dissenting voices, there is a growing body of evidence given to the inquiry that gestures towards a similar conclusion: that an unwillingness to implement a lockdown, on both occasions, resulted in large numbers of unnecessary victims, and what work had been done in spring and summer 2020 was undone when the Treasury was allowed to run roughshod over the scientific advice.
Johnson gives evidence this week
There has been a clear difference in the way professional scientists have conducted themselves in front of the inquiry. Politicians, however, seem to be more interested in political point-scoring. The growing culture war over the Covid-19 inquiry may very well come to a head this week when Johnson gives evidence. Having already had devastating wounds inflicted on his reputation – standing by ‘partygate’ and being interviewed by the police – Johnson’s evidence will be interesting, to say the least.
The Covid-19 inquiry will finally publish its report in 2027. When the public is finally able to read its conclusions, it will be a full seven and a half years since Covid-19 was first discovered in December 2019. For the victims of Covid-19 that is a long time to wait. They are entitled to a full and frank answer from Johnson.