Patrick Vallance’s diaries revealed more than he realised when he gave evidence to the Covid inquiry on 20 November. The UK’s former chief scientific adviser, who was instrumental in the handling of the pandemic and the implementation of lockdown, was scathing about the dysfunction in the Johnson government’s decision-making process.
In October 2020, he wrote the following about a meeting between ministers and officials: “Someone clearly not on mute – baby crying and then she starts singing ‘the wheels on the bus’ – somehow symbolic of the shambles.” It’s a searing insight into how lockdown policy was made – but not necessarily in the way Vallance might think.
The first nationwide lockdown was announced by Boris Johnson in March 2020. Schools and nurseries were ordered closed, with exemptions for the children of key workers. Visiting friends and family was banned. Any type of social interaction deemed non-essential was made illegal overnight (although the definition of “essential” was murky and seemed to change depending on who you were speaking to). Rishi Sunak announced the furlough scheme to protect millions of jobs and introduced support payments for the self-employed. Most workers who were able to were expected to get on with their jobs from home, however. Miraculously, they did.
There were 19.4 million families with children under 18 in 2020. The vast majority either had two working parents or one single parent in work (the government estimates that 71 per cent of mothers with children under 14 work, and 92 per cent of fathers). In other words, somewhere in the region of 30 million people suddenly found themselves having to balance jobs with full-time childcare.
I got a first-hand insight into what that meant when I moved house to help my partner and his ex-wife look after their twin toddlers. They were both working from home full-time. If I hadn’t been furloughed and able to take on more childcare, we would have been forced to work insane hours while taking turns to look after two three-year-olds. That’s with two parents, with jobs that could be done remotely, in a house that has broadband – and it still wouldn’t have been sustainable.
Yet this is what so many families with small children were forced to do, balancing babies with meetings, trying to home-school while keeping up with the requirements of their jobs, often under serious financial pressure. At the time, there didn’t seem to be any understanding from those making lockdown rules what this was actually like for working parents. Helen MacNamara, the deputy cabinet secretary at the time, suggested in her evidence to the Covid inquiry earlier this month that issues which primarily affected women were overlooked when officials were hashing out lockdown rules, thanks to the disproportionate number of men in the room. This was why considerations were made for grouse shooting while there was a “lack of thought” about issues more likely to impact women: domestic violence, pregnancy and childbirth, and of course who would look after all those children when schools and nurseries were closed.
[See also: The maternity unit is no place for a culture war]
The idea that any of these were an afterthought is abhorrent. And yet, that’s what happened. With a terrified public desperate to follow the rules and save lives (even if, according to MacNamara, those same rules were being bent to the extreme in Downing Street), working parents – and particularly working mothers, who took on the bulk of additional care responsibilities during the pandemic – were left in an untenable position.
Did ministers understand what they were doing? The evidence suggests that, most of the time, they didn’t have a clue. Look at MacNamara’s assessment. Or look at the story, as reported by the journalist Kate Maltby, of the babysitter who had to inform a senior member of the Johnson government that the Covid rules he had signed off banned her from working for him.
Let’s go back to Patrick Vallance’s diary entry. It’s true that by October 2020, the rules had relaxed somewhat – schools and childcare settings were allowed to open. But the virus was still raging, there was no vaccine, and the rules on self-isolation made it impossible for life to operate as normal. A woman with a baby could well have found her nursery closed due to staff shortages, or her childminder suddenly cancel after catching Covid. Or she or her baby might be showing symptoms, making it – as per the government’s own mandate – irresponsible for them to leave the house.
So yes, maybe Vallance’s colleague sang “The Wheels on the Bus” during a Zoom meeting. And yes, she should have muted the call. But where Vallance saw “shambles”, anyone who had been in a similar impossible situation – imposed by oblivious ministers and officials – would have seen heroic determination, someone desperately trying to do their job in spite of an adversity that the government refused to acknowledge. Maybe one of the architects of lockdown should have paused before demonising this working mother. Maybe Vallance should have asked himself what it meant about the conditions he was imposing on the country that this was her reality.
If we are to learn anything about future lockdowns and pandemics from this inquiry, if we are to learn anything about how we make policy and who it affects, perhaps this is where we should start.