The Insider

The real lessons from the Covid inquiry

Our pandemic response was marred by politicians’ incompetence. But years of austerity meant the NHS was already ill-equipped

December 06, 2023
Matt Hancock giving evidence at the Covid inquiry. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Matt Hancock giving evidence at the Covid inquiry. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

To my mind the three big lessons coming out of the Covid inquiry are entirely unsurprising—first, that it is obviously impossible to prepare for many aspects of unexpected emergencies; but, secondly, a better-funded NHS would have been more resilient; and third, what matters in our leaders above all is character and integrity. 

Austerity after 2010 left the NHS ill-equipped to deal with a pandemic, just as it left it ill-equipped to deal with waiting lists and routine appointments. There were too few emergency beds, too little vital equipment, including ventilators and PPE, and too few staff. No surprises there. Answer? A better funded NHS and care system, and politicians (probably not this generation of Tories) prepared to deliver this. 

However, the two key decisions on which the inquiry is focusing relentlessly were the dates of the first and second lockdowns in 2020 and whether they were unduly delayed. No amount of preparation would have made these decisions easier since there was no precedent for national lockdowns and no prior belief among mainstream policymakers that they would be a credible policy. They only became so, country by country across the world following China, as the pandemic proved so contagious and uncontainable in February and March 2020—and then again with a new strain at the end of the year before there was a vaccine.

Any democratic political leader would have hesitated before ordering either of the national lockdowns of 2020, and the professional advice in both cases was equivocal in the vital weeks leading up to the lockdown decisions. Verdict? With a prime minister other than Boris Johnson, the lockdown dates may not have changed much, if at all. 

A valuable line of enquiry would be the construction of lockdowns in future, and a balanced verdict on the Swedish experience of managing the pandemic without such restrictive lockdowns as in Britain. At the time I was extremely worried about closing schools, colleges and universities, and this remains a valid concern. I fear we are unlikely to get much advice on this from Lady Hallett on either front, as witnesses—politicians, medics and scientists—turn on each other in a blame game about lockdown delays and inadequate preparations. 

Even these lines of enquiry, however, are overwhelmed by political incompetence and malfeasance. Was Johnson’s holiday from 14th to 24th February a typically selfish abdication of duty? Did it delay the first lockdown because he simply wasn’t available to discuss options and take decisions? Was “eat out to help out” a Rishi Sunak fiasco? Why were ministers and officials so vicious about each other on WhatsApp? What happened to the “ring” around care homes? Why did Tory donors and supporters get preferential treatment in awarding contracts for emergency NHS supplies? All these are questions constantly rehearsed before Lady Hallett, on which she will no doubt offer robust verdicts, but they relate more to people than to systems and are accordingly less useful in respect of a future pandemic.

For the biggest theme of the inquiry is one of official misconduct on steroids: that Johnson, Hancock, Cummings and their teams set such a terrible public example to the rest of the country in the way they behaved throughout the pandemic. Partygate, Barnard Castle, the enriching of friends and allies, the entitlement and casual disregard of the truth and their own rules—it was the Eton mindset at its most grotesque. 

One lesson of all this is that Johnson was unfit to hold public office, not just during the pandemic but at any time. Parliament, in the shape of Harriet Harman’s standards committee, has beaten Lady Hallett to that one. 

However, lurking beneath is a broader verdict that the whole Tory “austerity and Brexit” gang from 2010 onwards was a danger to the public, and in particular to the NHS and public health. The electorate gets to have its say on that next year, probably shortly after Lady Hallett has reported. And it seems fairly clear what verdict it will give.