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22 February 2021

Why Boris Johnson must now announce a public inquiry into the UK’s Covid-19 catastrophe

The success of the vaccine programme should not dull our memories of the horrors that preceded it.

By Martin Fletcher

The “March to Freedom” has begun. Boris Johnson has unveiled a cautious roadmap for lifting England’s lockdown over the coming months. But what of that other map – the map that shows the grim route that we have travelled this past year with all its perils and pitfalls, its false starts, detours and U-turns? When will there be a reckoning, an accounting, for the catastrophe that has befallen Britain?

This Prime Minister is a past master at avoiding responsibility. Aided by a supine opposition, for example, he managed to push his dismal Brexit deal through parliament, and to implement it with minimal scrutiny. On several occasions he has acknowledged the need for an independent public inquiry into the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, but always with the rider that now is not the time. 

He doubtless hopes that the success of the vaccination programme will dull our memories of the horrors that preceded it, but that cannot be allowed to happen. 

This is not a partisan point. The UK has less than 1 per cent of the world’s population but has suffered nearly five per cent of its Covid-19 deaths. For all its wealth and scientific prowess it has lost 120,580 of its citizens. That is enough to fill Wembley or Twickenham one-and-a-half times. It is nearly double the number of British civilians killed in all six years of the Second World War combined. The pandemic has also cost the Exchequer £280bn, more than four times the annual defence budget, and taken a terrible toll on jobs, businesses and our children’s education. There will inevitably be more pandemics and it is in everyone’s interests that we learn the lessons from this one.

[See also: Why new Covid-19 variants are the biggest threat to Boris Johnson’s lockdown roadmap

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There are two intensely political issues, which would ideally be the subject of separate investigations lest they infect the broader one. They are the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) and test-and-trace. 

The first is an out-and-out scandal – the awarding of hundreds of no-tender contracts worth billions of pounds to Conservative donors and cronies with little or no relevant experience. The second is little better – the expenditure of a staggering £22bn on a test-and-trace system that is run by a Conservative peer (Dido Harding), employs hundreds of private consultants paid up to £7,000 each a day and has repeatedly failed to meet its targets. 

That said, the broader issues exposed by Covid-19 are ones that everybody should want addressed, regardless of their political affiliation, and the most obvious of them is the fact Britain was so lamentably unprepared.

The Cabinet Office’s 2008 National Risk Register identified a pandemic as the single most serious threat to Britain’s security. In 2016 Public Health England (PHE) conducted a three-day training exercise code-named “Cygnus” to test our preparedness, and concluded that the government’s “plans, policies and capabilities” were “not sufficient to cope with the extreme demands of a severe pandemic that will have a nationwide impact across all sectors”.

That warning was ignored. By the beginning of last year the NHS remained understaffed, overstretched and barely able to cope with the demands of the annual influenza outbreak, let alone Covid-19. Hence patients were discharged to care homes with disastrous consequences for our oldest and most vulnerable citizens.  

[See also: An avoidable catastrophe

Because the government’s contingency planning was for flu, which has a short incubation period and spreads much faster than a coronavirus, a test-and-trace system was deemed unworkable. Thus, when Covid-19 struck, Public Health England had the capacity to trace the contacts of just five coronavirus patients a week.

Stocks of PPE required to protect front-line health workers were insufficient, out of date and designed primarily for tackling a flu pandemic, not a much more dangerous coronavirus. As a result doctors and nurses were left woefully unprotected and the government had to pay vastly inflated prices to fill the shortfall: £14 for body bags that would previously have cost £1, £4.50 for coveralls that would normally have cost 33p and, according to the National Audit Office, £12.5bn for equipment that should have cost £2.5bn. 

There are a host of other questions an independent inquiry would need to investigate. Why was the government so slow to order a lockdown – not once, but twice? What advice did ministers receive from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage)? Are Sage and PHE still fit for purpose? What should happen when the prime minister is incapacitated, as Johnson was last April, leaving the government essentially leaderless for two weeks?

The government’s response has essentially been run by five men – Johnson, Matt Hancock, Michael Gove, Rishi Sunak and Dominic Raab. How could the executive give parliament a bigger role in future pandemics instead of assuming draconian powers itself? How could the government coordinate better with the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? How could it make better use of the private sector and local councils? How, for that matter, could it learn from the experience of other countries instead of ignoring states such as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand that had fought earlier coronaviruses such as Sars and Mers?

The list goes on. After a year of overpromising, mixed messages, leaks to favoured papers and headline-grabbing soundbites, the government needs a grown-up communications strategy to match the severity of the problem. It needs to develop proper contingency plans for future quarantines. It needs to do more to ensure the UK can manufacture its own vaccines, ventilators and PPE. It needs to do more to protect black and ethnic minority communities. It needs a better early warning system.

The public understands that the government faced an almost unprecedented crisis and some awful choices. A public inquiry need not be an exercise in apportioning blame, in finger-pointing. It should be a genuine attempt to bolster Britain’s defences and ensure that this dreadful past year is never repeated. By ordering one, and giving it a wide remit and full independence, Johnson could show he was sincere when he declared, as the death toll passed 100,000 last month: “I’m deeply sorry for every life that has been lost.”

 [See also: Why weren’t we ready?]