Covid inquiry half-time report: the winners and losers so far

A back-pedalling Matt Hancock came unstuck (again), the ‘two gentlemen of corona’, Vallance and Whitty, were candid, clear and balanced – but overall the hearings will play badly for the Conservative Party, says Sean O’Grady, as he looks ahead to next week’s appearance by Boris Johnson

Thursday 30 November 2023 19:58 GMT
(Dave Brown)

The Covid inquiry is supposed to be about delineating what happened during the pandemic, learning lessons, and making findings that can be treated as recommendations. It is independent, and run by senior judge Baroness Hallett, who has been visibly fair in her role. Being statutory, established under the Inquiries Act 2005, and with the chair able to run it as she deems fit, it has no political agenda. It is an investigatory tribunal, and nobody is on trial.

Even so, the reputations of many politicians and civil servants are being tested. The final report, which will focus on institutional and “structural” factors, may still criticise or censure key players. There is a human factor.

Thus far, there have been some notable winners and losers. Matt Hancock, who was health secretary for most of the pandemic, is a case in point. And on Wednesday and Thursday next week, Boris Johnson will offer his testimony…

How did Matt Hancock do?

He endured one of the more difficult cross-examinations. Some of the previous witnesses had been devastatingly critical of Hancock during the pandemic and were similarly inclined while giving their testimony, so he was on the defensive coming into the inquiry. Cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill; his deputy, Helen MacNamara; the chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance; Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s adviser, and Johnson himself had all been disparaging – variously accusing Hancock of misleading them, about Covid/infection control and preparedness plans, and critical of his administrative ability. Others, such as Dominic Raab and Michael Gove, expressed a higher opinion of him. It’s fair to say that the questioning from Hugo Keith KC didn’t entirely repair Hancock’s standing. In particular, Hancock was unable to prove he had told Johnson to impose a national lockdown on 13 March 2020. Here’s a typical exchange:

Hancock: “I first told PM Boris Johnson to lock down on March 13th.” Keith: “You mention other things on that day, but your book makes no reference to this.” Hancock: “I didn’t have full access to my papers.” Keith: “Your book says you had all your papers, notes, memos, communications. 555 pages of relevant events, but no reference to you telling the PM to lock down on 13th March.” Hancock: “I can remember it: it came to light looking forward to this inquiry.”

Who are the other losers?

Of those who appeared before the panel this week, Jenny Harries, who was deputy chief medical officer during the crisis and is now head of the UK Health Security Agency, wasn’t an especially clear witness, and the revelation that she had knowingly envisaged discharging Covid-positive patients from hospitals to care homes was a painful one.

More may come to light in the much later, final module on this very subject. Gove gave the impression of parrying questions about personal actions into a lengthy discourse on the machinery of government. He offered an apology, on behalf of himself and the government, for unspecified “errors” and “mistakes”. So verbose were some of his answers that one barrister suggested he might be running the clock down, and he quibbled too much. He probably didn’t leave the best impression with the inquiry team.

Did anyone come across well?

The “two gentlemen of corona”, as they were once dubbed – Vallance and Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer – and their colleagues Jonathan Van-Tam and Angela McLean, were ideal witnesses – candid, balanced and clear, free of obfuscation. Cummings’s brutal, if foul-mouthed, outspokenness probably worked in his favour.

What conclusions can we draw already?

From the previous modules and this one so far, the evidence tends to confirm the general view that has emerged of the UK’s handling of the pandemic, which is that it was inadequate in some crucial respects. The preparedness module established not only that there was a shortage of the right personal protective equipment, but that this was only partly excused by the virus being so different from those that had emerged before, such as swine flu and avian flu. The current module is confirming that the organisation of cabinet, cabinet committees, the Cabinet Office itself, Cobra, and the usual procedures of government weren’t well suited, or sometimes properly adapted, to an all-encompassing emergency such as the Covid pandemic.

Such structural and institutional weaknesses in the machinery of government were plainly exacerbated by the sometimes “toxic” and “dysfunctional” human relationships between various politicians and officials, and in some cases, the lack of the necessary qualities in the individuals concerned.

In terms of the human factor, it’s also apparent from the proceedings that those who were running the country didn’t always have the appropriate skill set to deal with such a situation – and this applies particularly to the then prime minister, Johnson, but also to Hancock, Cummings, and Rishi Sunak (who was chancellor at the time).

How does this play politically?

Badly for the government and the Conservative Party; after all, the Tories were in power, and one of those most closely involved, Sunak, is now prime minister. Others – Johnson, Hancock, Raab and Cummings, though gone from government, are also famous names closely associated with the party (though Cummings was never a Tory party member). Obviously, no blame can attach itself to the Labour Party, even though, in a parallel universe, an administration led by Jeremy Corbyn with John McDonnell in the Treasury and Jonathan Ashworth as health secretary might not have performed very differently – this would make for an interesting, and illuminating, counterfactual debate.

Don’t forget that, when the inquiry was eventually set up by Johnson in 2021, the plan was to have a general election in 2023 and that his administration would by now be triumphantly re-elected; all the embarrassing stuff now tumbling out was supposed to be happening after Johnson’s second term of office had been safely secured. As things stand, the public’s dim view of the Johnson administration, and the Tories more generally, won’t be much altered by these proceedings. But it will confirm many in their inclination not to reward the Conservatives with another term of office. It is intermittent background noise, but nonetheless very unhelpful for a party seeking to demonstrate competence and professionalism.

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