It is hard to keep up with the shocking revelations emerging from the Covid inquiry. Was the lowlight of the evidence provided by Dominic Cummings on Tuesday 31 October (Halloween – purely by coincidence), the WhatsApp message where Boris Johnson’s former guru called cabinet ministers “useless f***pigs”? Or the one where he threatened to “personally handcuff” the second highest-level civil servant, Helen MacNamara, and “escort her from the building” because “we cannot keep dealing with this horrific meltdown of the British state while dodging stilettos from that c***”?
What about when a message from the former chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance revealed that Johnson had wondered whether “Covid is just Nature’s way of dealing with old people”? Or the news that the then prime minister asked his advisers whether people could kill Covid by blowing a hairdryer up their nose? Or McNamara’s own evidence that she would “find it hard to pick one day” when the regulations were “followed properly” within No 10?
But really, the most shocking thing about this module of the inquiry (the second of six, entitled “Core UK decision-making and political governance”) is how unsurprising all this actually feels.
We have undergone something akin to collective amnesia in this country about the horrors of the pandemic. But if you can bear to cast your mind back to March 2020, or the panic when the prime minister himself was hospitalised, or the back and forth over lockdown in autumn and winter (during which time, it has later transpired, a number of parties were taking place in Downing Street), it all makes a perverse sort of sense. Because in truth the messaging from those making the rules did at times seem so random, so poorly communicated, so counterproductive and so cruel that had we thought about it in any depth we would have concluded that something was going very, very wrong at the heart of government. We might not have chosen to characterise them all as “useless f***pigs” (although thinking back, I suspect a fair few of us might), but it would have been a difference in language, not sentiment.
I am not seeking to minimise how terrifying and stressful the pandemic must have been for those in charge. To a greater or lesser extent, every country in the world was caught off-guard by a new virus of which maddeningly little was known in early 2020. Johnson’s hairdryer questions seem comical now, almost three years since the first Covid vaccine was administered to a patient in the UK, but at the time all sorts of fanciful theories were abounding. That coronavirus could be killed by injecting bleach or drinking hot water and honey; that packages should be left outside for 72 hours to avoid transmission by touch; that you could catch Covid by stroking a cat. We knew nothing, scientists were working around the clock, and sleep-deprived officials had to make do with the inadequate plans they had inherited. Of course they didn’t get everything right.
But there is a difference between making mistakes because you don’t have all the correct information and the sheer macho-fuelled chaos now being revealed by the Covid inquiry. A type of chaos in which no one is sure of the lines of accountability, where the prime minister keeps changing his mind, and where managing a pandemic that will kill millions and devastate the lives of millions more becomes a battle of egos between officials who see themselves as the main characters in a generation-defining epic.
I’ve written before about how Matt Hancock, with his pseudo-diaries and emotional appearance at the previous stage of the inquiry, has sought to paint himself as the hero in this tale. According to the former NHS England chief Simon Stevens, who also gave evidence this week, the erstwhile former health secretary even thought he should “ultimately decide who should live and who should die” if the health service became overwhelmed. Cummings has done the same, albeit in coarser language, spinning a narrative in which he was the sole voice of reason in Downing Street, pushing the recalcitrant Whitehall machine towards a lockdown everyone else was too blind to realise was necessary. Meanwhile, Johnson – the “trolley”, as everyone around him apparently called him, who didn’t understand statistics and was unable to follow his own Covid rules – still insists he “got the big calls right”. And Rishi Sunak appears to have cared primarily about his spreadsheets, unmoved by calls to give low-paid workers cash to self-isolate, presumably because he didn’t realise how critical a week’s lost pay would be to the most vulnerable households.
What’s missing in all of this – what was so clearly missing at the time – is any real degree of empathy. While Hancock and Cummings locked antlers and Johnson watched YouTube videos, matters of vital importance such as the impact on care homes and burnout in the NHS were being missed. And as for the harms of lockdown, the list of crucial concerns that appear to have been overlooked is heart-breaking: from children’s lost education, to the lack of treatment for non-Covid conditions, to the impact on victims of domestic violence.
It is horrifying to think that the reason childcare wasn’t really considered as part of the lockdown plan was because, as MacNamara revealed, men dominated the rooms where decisions were made. Women were forced to give birth or miscarry alone, with their partners waiting in hospital car parks, because the men at the top forgot about them. In the latter stages of the pandemic when restrictions were being relaxed and reintroduced at dizzying speed, grouse-shooting was exempt from the rules but children’s outdoor play-dates weren’t. There was, MacNamara said, an “absence of humanity” at the heart of government.
That, I think, is a more revealing comment than “useless f***pigs”. It validates what so many of us felt at the time: that those making the rules didn’t understand the effect those rules would have on people who weren’t like them, who weren’t holding workplace parties or trying to use the pandemic to settle old personal scores or bag themselves a prominent spot in the history books. And it’s shocking because we so desperately wanted to believe that there was a reason for this, that those in charge were taking all these things into account behind the scenes even if the reality looked like chaos.
But no. We were right all along.