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22 April 2020updated 23 Apr 2020 11:24am

Why it’s not too early for an inquiry into the government’s failings over Covid-19

The mistakes may not be difficult problems of personnel or institutions, but ones that can be solved swiftly and painlessly. 

By Stephen Bush

One of the intriguing constants of political life, even in the age of social distancing, is that politicians are still prone to bouts of heavy groupthink. The physical location known as the Palace of Westminster is near empty – but the psychological space remains well-populated. The latest commonplace wisdom concerns the unpopularity of journalists, the one section of the political class whose standing has declined rather than risen during the coronavirus crisis.

The argument runs like this: journalists are fighting a war on two fronts. On the one hand, they are trying to cover the government’s day-to-day handling of the battle against Covid-19. On the other, they are trying to conduct an inquiry into the initial response to the pandemic. They are doing neither well, and are irritating almost everyone in the process.

The thesis has a ring of truth to it. At times, the government’s daily press conferences are so dominated by attempts to relitigate the recent past that ministers get away with blue murder in the present. On 8 April, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, announced a mere £750m to support the UK’s overwhelmed and underfunded charities sector, which faces an estimated £4bn black hole. But he was questioned about government failures to provide adequate supplies of personal protective equipment, a responsibility of the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock. On 19 April, the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, told reporters that he had no intention of putting on additional summer classes to help children make up the lost time. He, again, faced questions that were largely the purview of his opposite number at the Department of Health and Social Care.

Concern that rows about the past are crowding out a necessary debate about the future don’t just extend to the Conservatives. When I spoke to Gordon Brown on 20 April, he expressed his concern that questions over how the government handled the opening stages of the epidemic were dominating the political and news agendas, while questions over the global and national fiscal response were being pushed to one side. The afternoon that I spoke to Brown, Sunak was again the beneficiary of the change in focus: the Chancellor announced that British banks will continue to be responsible for loans to shuttered businesses, which could mean that many companies are denied the funds they need to keep going.

The case that Britain is ill served by a political debate that litigates the mistakes of the recent past is convincing. Almost everyone in politics believes that the years after the crisis will be dominated by inquiries into the government’s handling of it. The UK’s approach to tackling the spread of coronavirus – first loose and voluntary, then tougher – and the various missed targets for testing and protective equipment are questions that will need to be probed one day. But, think many at Westminster, that day has not yet come.

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There is a problem with the argument that the British state should first defeat coronavirus and then identify what it got wrong. This notion assumes that the underlying problems were mistakes made by ministers that cannot swiftly be unpicked. That idea is attractive to many MPs because it doesn’t require them to change their ideas about the people at the top. Most Labour MPs think that Boris Johnson has a natural instinct for winning elections but lacks both the energy and the ability to steer the ship of state effectively, while most Conservatives think that in 2019 they picked their most able communicator rather than their most gifted administrator. 

For both groups, the idea that an inquiry might one day conclude that a more assiduous prime minister might have handled the outbreak better wouldn’t upend their sense of the world.

There are divergent views on Johnson’s Health Secretary, Matt Hancock. Hancock’s admirers and supporters think that this crisis has shown that the NHS reorganisation introduced by Andrew Lansley in 2012 is an unwieldy chimera that failed its first major stress test, and that the reason the government has fallen short of Hancock’s promises is that the machinery underneath him is unfit for purpose. Hancock’s detractors think that he has been exposed by the challenges of handling a pandemic and it is he, not the Health and Social Care Act, that is unfit for purpose.

The bad news for Hancock is that his list of enemies is growing. Some in government feel he has been more concerned with making sure his own appearances in front of the media go well than in equipping his colleagues to handle the onslaught – with one MP quipping that the role of appearing at a press conference was like being in “Matt Hancock’s warm-up band”.

What links the supposed failings of the Prime Minister, the Health Secretary and the health service is that they are all problems that cannot be fixed during the crisis. But what if the consensus is wrong? What if the mistakes thus far aren’t big and difficult problems of personnel or institutions, but ones that can be solved swiftly and painlessly? What if a bigger role for the Foreign Office, with its eye on how the rest of the world is responding to the pandemic, would have sharpened up the initial response? What if the process for procuring more personal protective equipment would speed up if the minister in charge were located in the business department rather than health?

Those are questions that can be answered – and solved – before the crisis ends. And that’s the biggest irony with the Conservatives’ argument that the political debate should focus solely on the future: it falls apart unless you assume that it is the Conservatives who will be found guilty.

This article appears in the 22 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The coronavirus timebomb