The most surprising thing about the Covid Enquiry is that it contains so few surprises. The British state was totally unprepared for the pandemic. Years of austerity had reduced the capacity of the state to respond. Local government had been hollowed out by savage budget cuts imposed by national government. Stocks of PPE were either non-existent or totally unfit for purpose. The NHS was already overstretched and ill-equipped. There were not enough intensive care beds and not enough ventilators.

We had a government led by a clown who was totally out of his depth and surrounded by third-raters, whose personal ambition and infighting was more important to them than pulling together in the national interest. The public knew better. As a trustee for the National Autistic Society I was in London the week before lockdown for a meeting about Covid precautions to keep the people we served and our staff safe in our schools and adult services. London was a ghost town.

At my hotel in Islington I was informed that the restaurant was closed. I set off in search of an evening meal. Most were already closed in anticipation of the coming lockdown. I discovered a restaurant that was still serving. I was its only customer. The next morning back at Euston, I had never known it so quiet. I had a carriage to myself, and the guard announced that there would be no on-board ticket checks due to the risk from coronavirus.

When the first two cases in the UK were confirmed at the end of January 2020, the Tories were more concerned to celebrate Brexit. A month later there were 23 recorded cases. On 11th March the WHO declared a pandemic. On 16th March the UK had over 1500 cases and 55 deaths. On 30th March there were 10,000 Covid patients in hospital and 381 deaths that day, bringing the total deaths to 1789.

By the end of the first wave in June 2020 there had been 300,000 confirmed cases and over 40,000 deaths. The latest figures for 2022 are 24,809,742 confirmed cases, and 231,692 deaths.

The government mantra throughout has been that nobody could have foreseen the unprecedented effects of Covid and that they did their best to respond by following the science. When Johnson said in a televised address to the nation on 10th May 2020, “We did not fully understand its effects,” he was lying.

Scientists did foresee the possible impact of Covid and were hard at work in January. Jeremy Farrar, head of the Welcome Trust, describes in his book how he had helped to release the Covid-19 genome sequence on 11th January 2020 against the wishes of the Chinese government. Two days later Professor Sarah Gilbert and her team at Oxford University had used the genetic sequence to design a vaccine. By the end of January her colleague, Dr Catherine Green, was ready to start making the first batch of vaccine. On 23rd January 2020 Farrar spoke at a press conference at the World Economic Forum in Davos, alongside Richard Hatchett of CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Moderna who, like the Oxford University team, had already started work on a vaccine. 

According to Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet,

The facts were utterly opposite to the message from 10 Downing Street. There was an international scientific consensus. The government had simply chosen to ignore it .

Richard Horton; The Covid-19 Catastrophe. Polity Press 2020. Pages 94-95

The ridiculous herd immunity strategy in which Johnson said we should take it on the chin would have meant 40 million infections and 400,000 deaths in the UK. And there was no guarantee it would work. But the level of scientific ignorance inside government led them to confuse possibility with probability and to make this untested hypothesis a policy for a few short weeks at the start of the pandemic. Richard Horton, Editor in Chief of the Lancet, was clear in his book, The Covid-19 Catastrophe that, 

In the UK, for example, ministers have claimed they did not pursue a policy of herd immunity early in the pandemic. The statements from ministers and science advisors clearly prove the opposite.

Richard Horton; The Covid-19 Catastrophe. Polity Press 2020. Page 95

And now Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific advisor, and Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer and medical advisor to the government, are telling their side of the story at the public enquiry, after maintaining a silence and acting as human shields for the government.

In February 2020, according to Vallance giving testimony to the enquiry, MI5 responded to advice from him and Whitty to implement its pandemic emergency plan, saying “I am inclined to listen to the scientists and so having been told that this is coming, pretty much that day I instructed the implementation of contingency planning.” But the government was not listening. Johnson certainly wasn’t. He did not even attend Cobra meetings in the beginning.

The first rule of infection control in a pandemic is contact tracing. But there was no capacity to do this. According to Vallance on 18th February Public Health England could cope with five new cases a week. Perhaps increasing to 50. So the government stopped contact tracing, claiming it was no longer necessary. But, if you cannot control the pandemic by quarantining contacts, you have no option but to impose a lockdown. The first lockdown came too late and was lifted too early. The government constantly tried to compromise between public health and economic health. Its half hearted measures damaged both.

But perhaps the most damning statement was when Vallance said that when Johnson was sick with Covid and Dominic Raab took over as deputy PM, “From my perspective [that] introduced a more disciplined and structured way of working.” We always knew how bad Johnson was. But to be worse than Raab is a pretty major achievement!

And that is the true message of this enquiry. Never mind the greed and the profiteering around PPE and Track and Trace. Never mind the hypocrisy surrounding PartyGate. Never mind the inhumanity that sent infected patients into care homes with such devastating effect. Faced with a potentially existential crisis, our political leaders had no idea beyond ensuring their own survival. They may still rule. But they no longer have the right to lead.

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