The Spectator

The Covid Inquiry is a case study in how not to learn lessons

Two years ago, a new strain of Covid emerged and with it came calls for a Christmas lockdown. The Omicron variant was said to spread far faster than previous iterations of the virus and Imperial’s Neil Ferguson warned that it was no less deadly. The call for lockdown began and Britain came very close to implementing it. A press conference was called and Rishi Sunak, then chancellor, returned from a trip to California to try to stop what he thought would be another needless social and economic calamity.

In the end, another lockdown was avoided. Cabinet members had come to realise that the Sage ‘scenario’ graphs were indefensibly misleading. The data from South Africa showed this Covid variant was far less deadly than anyone would have predicted from the hysterical forecasts from the likes of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Analysts from a bank, JP Morgan, used the South Africa data to predict a scenario far more accurate than the one Chris Whitty had presented to cabinet.

The Covid Inquiry has become part of the problem: a case study in how not to learn lessons

Why, after a year and more of learning about Covid, were the cabinet served junk forecasts by Whitty and Sage? Why had the government apparatus failed to learn lessons and why was the Chief Medical Officer, a professor of public health, giving such duff advice? Mistakes were inevitable when the pandemic began. Failure to learn from these mistakes was not inevitable. The urgent question is why this failure took place – and how to correct it.

Boris Johnson looked miserable at his appearance at Baroness Hallett’s Covid hearing this week, and deservedly so. This inquiry is his creation, a sprawling monster whose costs are likely to be upwards of £250 million. It has been set up in such a way that seems designed to conclude the main error was to not lock down earlier. A group has been created to represent families bereaved by the virus, but there is no group to represent those harmed by the side-effects of lockdown. The imbalance is obvious.

Simon Stevens, who ran the NHS at the time, has begged the inquiry to spend some of its gargantuan resources on looking at whether lockdown was needed. It would be useful to know which of the measures – school closures, stay-at-home orders – were effective at controlling the virus. How did Sweden get through the pandemic without restrictions? Might it be better to trust people to avoid the virus themselves without any need to criminalise behaviour or involve the police?

In its repeated and studied refusal to address such questions, the inquiry has become part of the problem: a case study in how not to learn lessons.

The chief interrogator, Hugo Keith KC, is obsessed with the rude words he has found in people’s emails and seems to relish repeating them to those he is questioning. He is far less interested in the quality of evidence or what steps were taken to ensure efficacy. Or why ministers did not realise that streets and trains were visibly emptying because people were staying home anyway – suggesting the lockdown need never have been imposed. This ought to be the main thesis being tested by the inquiry, yet it has never been raised.

When Johnson disclosed that he was told 20 per cent of patients would need ventilators, the inquiry did nothing to ascertain how official advice could be so wrong. It certainly had consequences: there was a national scramble to secure ventilators at the cost of £569 million, all of which ended up gathering dust in a military warehouse. Such flaws in a government decision-making process should be identified and corrected as soon as possible, to save a future waste of time and money. But the inquiry, it seems, would rather focus on name-calling and psychodrama. Johnson was asked about the gender balance in his team of advisers and why he used the F-word in emails.

Months in to this process and our understanding is no further forward. But we do have a ‘commemorative tapestry’ commissioned under the inquiry’s art budget to capture ‘the experiences and emotions of people across the UK during the pandemic’. Even this caused pointless drama. The bereaved families group withdrew their support from the project.

In his evidence, Johnson described Covid as a ‘once in a century event’. This is wishful thinking. Hong Kong and swine flu were on a similar global scale but we did not, back then, have the tools to monitor their progress in real time. New diagnostic technology allows us to trace pathogens that have hitherto been invisible. When that happens, in a world connected by social media, panic spreads. Politicians will be under huge public pressure to implement untested theories. How to respond in such situations?

We have seen the damage lockdown did – to schools, society, the economy and the healthcare system – so there is an obvious need to prevent a repeat of the same fiasco. That means having the debate now, while there is no panic, so we are better prepared. Yet almost four years on, we still have the same Sage public health apparatus that failed so spectacularly first time around.

For too long, questions about Covid were answered with a plea to ‘wait for the inquiry’. We have now, alas, heard enough to establish that Lady Hallett’s juggernaut is not going to provide the necessary answers.