It doesn’t take an inquiry to reveal Boris Johnson’s incompetence

The Covid inquiry will drag on for years. But there are some things we already know

May 31, 2023
Demonstrators protesting against Johnson outside Downing Street. Image: Amer Ghazzal / Alamy Stock Photo
Demonstrators protesting against Johnson outside Downing Street. Image: Amer Ghazzal / Alamy Stock Photo

Let’s hope there isn’t another pandemic in the next five or so years, because the inquiry into the last one may not even have been completed by then, let alone acted upon.

This isn’t the fault of the retired judge Heather Hallett, who is in charge of the Covid-19 inquiry. She is following the glacial procedure of other such inquiries in recent decades following events of great controversy and/or scandal, including the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq War and the Jay inquiry into child sexual abuse. This involves huge teams of experts and lawyers trawling exhaustively for views and evidence, with evidence taken mostly in public in a quasi-judicial format.

Because the purpose—or expectation—of these inquiries is to attribute blame as well as learn lessons for the future, key witnesses and participants are lawyered up to the hilt. They drag out the publication of the report, contesting any findings critical of them or their organisation by a process called “Maxwellisation”, which gives them the right to see such criticism in draft form and make representations. Both the Chilcot and the Jay inquiries took seven years from start to finish.

The Hallett inquiry looks to be on a similar trajectory. It has already been going for 11 months and we are in the early stages. This week’s farrago about Boris Johnson’s diaries and WhatsApp messages is clearly a prelude to protracted legal wrangling about what he did and said, including whether he broke the law and/or guidance about gatherings and social distancing on still more occasions than those already uncovered in the Partygate scandal.

This will be only one of a host of such episodes and controversies about former ministers and officials which will preoccupy the inquiry, alongside the fundamental issues of what was done last time to protect the public and what should be prepared for next time.

When it comes to taking oral evidence from the main players, particularly Johnson, Matt Hancock, Dominic Cummings, Chris Whitty and Dido Harding, they will be far more concerned to protect themselves from criticism—and possible litigation—than to address these fundamental questions. Even under the inquiry’s existing published timetable, public hearings are not due to be completed until “summer 2026”—more than another three years away.

In all likelihood, the oral evidence sessions will turn into a media circus, with allegations of personal impropriety—of which there appears to have been plenty—overwhelming the major concerns of public policy in the handling of pandemics.

Meanwhile, Sweden has already completed its official inquiry into the handling of the pandemic. By the time Hallett was appointed in December 2021, Mats Melin, former head of the Swedish Supreme Administrative Court, had already produced two interim reports scrutinising the Swedish government. His final report was published last February.

This expedition isn’t because the “learning lessons” task was any easier in Sweden. On the contrary, in the early stages of the pandemic Sweden departed from the “tough lockdown” approach of most countries—including the UK—under the influence of Anders Tegnell, the government’s controversial chief epidemiologist. Melin’s report is highly critical. “People in Norway and Denmark had another year to live. That is not something to be taken lightly,” he concluded. “Our main criticism is that in March 2020, the Swedish government should have taken much more stringent measures to try to slow down the spread of the pandemic to give itself time to reflect, to call on the resources we had and to be better prepared to deal with the pandemic.”

About 100 people gave evidence to the Melin inquiry, behind closed doors. There were no public events, let alone public inquisitorial sessions. “You expect people to speak more openly and be more frank in their responses if it’s not immediately in the public arena, though all the results were published in the end,” said Melin in defence of the Swedish inquiry process.

Given the urgency of the public health issues at stake, we could do with a bit of Swedish acceleration so we can quickly learn fundamental lessons about the preparedness of the NHS and the care sector, the framing of rules about social contact and interaction, not to mention the emergency procurement of vaccines and other essential supplies.

Of course, it may be that another fundamental lesson of Covid is not to have a charlatan like Boris Johnson in charge. But it doesn’t take a lengthy legal inquisition into the increasingly discredited former prime minister’s diaries, notebooks and WhatsApps to reach that entirely uncontroversial verdict.