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The UK’s Covid inquiry is confirming what we already knew: that the pandemic hit Britain when Downing Street was inhabited by a peculiarly nasty bunch of arrogant, foul-mouthed characters who could have auditioned for parts in the TV satire The Thick of It. I still found myself shocked, attending the hearings this week, by the chaos and vacuum where a prime minister should have been. But I also fear that these televised hearings focus too much on the psychodrama, rather than on what serious lessons can be learnt.

The inquiry is, in part, a trial of Boris Johnson. The revelation from his principal private secretary, the civil servant Martin Reynolds, that Johnson was absent with no briefings during the February 2020 half-term, is appalling. When his former communications director Lee Cain, a political appointee, said that Johnson’s skills were not suited to this crisis, it was hard to imagine any crisis that would have suited him better, given tales of his endless vacillations.

But the Downing Street dramas should not blind us to where other parts of the system failed. Nor to the many civil service heroes who came to the fore. Some of them (including many women), are fulsomely praised by Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s one-time chief adviser, in his witness statement. That 110-page document is a more useful guide to what it was like operating in Whitehall than the interminable “who hated who” questions being asked by the Inquiry.

From where I sat in 2020, as a temporary adviser to the Department of Health, there were many system failings. In March, no one could even agree how many people were dying. There were data sets which contradicted each other and people who didn’t know how to analyse data. There were myriad agencies whose responsibilities were sometimes unclear, many of which were unimpressive. There was a silo mentality between departments and an obsession with process: a touching belief that holding yet another meeting, or issuing guidance, was the same thing as action. I recall a certain amount of (non sweary) shouting, mainly from me, borne of intense frustration at the unnecessary complexity.

And here is where I think it is worth reflecting on what might lie behind some of those appalling WhatsApps, beyond the machismo. Some of Cummings’ messages to the prime minister read like a cry for help from a man shouting into the wind. He was not the only one to find it harder than it should have been.

His statement raises many questions which I hope the inquiry will pursue. One is why it took so long to achieve mass testing, which could have made a big difference to whether a second lockdown was needed. Another is why Whitehall is so resistant to looking abroad. Instead of asking what we could learn from Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, which had gone through Sars, the instinct was to build our own systems, incredibly late, from scratch. A third is, what was the impact of cumbersome procurement processes? Outrage over some fraudsters appearing to have benefited from PPE contracts is absolutely justified. But it has perhaps obscured a different problem.

In the early months of 2020, the world was engaged in a zero sum fight for medical equipment: masks, ventilators, PPE. Governments had teams bargaining over shipments at airfields. Cummings claims that officials initially rejected some PPE and ventilators on cost grounds, even though they had been told to waive the normal rules given the market shortage. The system had wrongly assumed it had far more PPE than it did. This matters: the lack of PPE meant some doctors, care workers and nurses died.

I blame Cummings for having done more than any other individual to make Boris Johnson prime minister. I blame him even more since it has become apparent that he knew all along that the man he was selling to the country was “unfit for the job”. But I do think he is right that Whitehall needs people who know how to deliver.

By June 2020, my own view was that the exhausted government should have a “Red Team” to challenge assumptions and spot errors. Hugo Keith, the Inquiry’s KC, expressed horror this week that the cabinet wasn’t making the decisions. Does he really imagine that today’s bloated cabinets of almost 30 people are anything more than a Potemkin structure?

A trusted challenger group could have tested the scientific models, asked if lockdowns were working, and what balance should be struck between young and old. This was a legitimate question, which every western government had to address — even if Johnson’s alleged quips about letting nature take its course were exceptionally insensitive.

It doesn’t mean it was necessarily wrong to lock down. But there were many victims of this crisis: those who died; relatives who were not allowed to hold the hands of the dying or attend funerals; children who were prevented from going to school or taking exams (unlike their peers in many other countries); patients who died from other causes because they stayed away from the NHS; young and old beset with enduring mental health problems from isolation. I hope the Inquiry will consider them too.

The latest revelations will deepen public cynicism about politics. But reducing the debate to a discussion of heroes and villains is ultimately reductive — the real question is how we would save lives next time around.


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