Covid-19 Public Inquiry - What Happened at the Module 1 Public Hearings?
The hearings, which commenced on 13 June 2023 and concluded on 19 July 2023, assessed whether the pandemic was properly planned for by the Government and if the UK was adequately prepared for Covid.
The general picture from the hearings is that the UK was ill-prepared for the pandemic. Bereaved families called the UK Government “catastrophically unprepared”, whilst lead Counsel on the TUC team concluded, in his closing speech, that “quite simply, there was no plan”.
The inquiry chair, Baroness Heather Hallett, wanted to know why.
Several high-profile witnesses, including David Cameron, George Osbourne, Matt Hancock and Chris Whitty, spent time discussing possible reasons. Amongst these, the three most prominent were Brexit, Government austerity and the failure of experts.
Following demands from the trade unions, the Inquiry examined the effects of public sector austerity upon resilience and preparedness.
Public Health England, the body responsible for keeping the nation healthy during Covid, suffered significant budget cuts in the years preceding the Pandemic. Professor Dame Jenny Harries, Chief Executive of the UK Health and Security Agency, said that over the PHE’s eight-year life, central government funding was cut by 40% in real terms.
Budget cuts placed local health officials under ‘significant pressure’ and community infection prevention became a “declining resource”, stated Harries. It was also her understanding that the “poorest” areas of England had experienced the highest cuts, widening health inequalities as the UK entered the pandemic.
However, former Conservative prime minister David Cameron denied claims that his austerity measures weakened the NHS. He stated, “Your health system is only as strong as your economy, because one pays for the other’.
Ex-Chancellor George Osbourne echoed these denials, going further to say that cutting the deficit “had a material and positive effect on the UK’s ability to respond” to Covid.
Witnesses and Core Participants also pointed to Brexit as a significant factor in the UK’s failure to properly prepare for a pandemic.
A letter from Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty to Sir Chris Wormald (Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health) in early 2019 showed that almost 20 work streams on pandemic planning were stopped or reduced because resources had to be shifted to focus on planning for a no-deal Brexit. The Inquiry was also informed that such resource-intensive planning meant that the UK’s pandemic flu readiness board did not meet for over a year before Covid.
On the first day of the hearings, Hugo Keith KC, Counsel to the inquiry, stated that planning for a no-deal Brexit had “crowded out and prevented” the work that was needed to prepare for a pandemic. Scrutinising the government’s Operation Yellowhammer, he told the Inquiry that it drained “the resources and capacity” that were needed for pandemic planning.
The Inquiry also heard from former Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon who stated that preparations for Brexit had disrupted pandemic preparedness in Scotland.
The architects of these policies denied these claims, arguing that Brexit planning actually helped prepare the UK Government for the pandemic. Former Cabinet Office Minister, Michael Gove, called the planning for a no-deal Brexit “some of the best preparation” for Covid, telling the Inquiry that it gave the Government a “daily battle rhythm”.
Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock also pointed towards the efforts working to safeguard medicine supplies post-Brexit, stating that this helped the UK avoid running out of medicines for intensive care.
Failure of the Experts
A line of reasoning that had more agreement was failure of experts in preparing for the right pandemic.
The Inquiry heard repeated explanations that in preparing for future pandemics, focus was placed on a flu pandemic as this is what topped the national risk register in the years preceding Covid-19. The issue here was whilst flu carriers tend to be symptomatic and thus know when to isolate, Covid-19 tended to be more ‘asymptomatic’ and therefore mass testing was needed to stop it spreading.
The result of this is what Matt Hancock referred to as a “flawed doctrine”. He said that “instead of a strategy for preventing a pandemic having a disastrous effect, it is a strategy for dealing with the disastrous effect of the pandemic”.
This sentiment was shared by Dame Sally Davies (former Chief Medical Officer) who said the Government “monomaniacally focused on pandemic flu” and, even then, “was focused on managing the dead rather than protecting the living”.
Boris Johnson’s Text Messages
Alongside hearing evidence relating to government preparedness, Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages, notebooks and diaries have now been passed to the Inquiry. This followed a High Court ruling which rejected the government’s bid to prevent their release.
Obtaining this material is the latest development in the Inquiry’s attempt to get to the bottom of the handling of the pandemic.
Module 1 of the Inquiry’s public hearings has provided us with a comprehensive examination of the early response to the pandemic.
Whilst we still await the Chair’s report on Module 1 (expected to be published in summer 2024), we anticipate it will draw a clear conclusion on the Government’s lack of preparedness to the pandemic.
The reasons behind this lack of preparedness are for deliberation by the Chair. However, the evidence from the public hearings have demonstrated that the lack of government preparation may have stemmed from austerity, planning for a no-deal Brexit and the failure of experts.
What to expect next from the Inquiry?
The hearings for Module 1 marked the first of many public hearings that are set to run until Summer 2026.
The next round of live evidence is set to resume on 3 October 2023 and that will be the start of Module 2. This will focus on core UK decision making and political governance. Other future modules are expected to cover a number of topics, including: the care sector; health inequalities and the impact of Covid-19; education, children and young persons; and other public services, including frontline delivery by key workers.
To follow the progress of the Inquiry’s work, see https://covid19.public-inquiry.uk/.
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