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Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
All hail Isabel Oakeshott, one of the country’s few remaining journalists.
In breaking the Lockdown Files, she has not only scooped her rivals, but exposed them as government toadies.
The supineness of the press was obvious when Britain’s media mavens queued up in the Number Ten Rose Garden at the behest of Dominic Cummings after he bent lockdown law in April 2020. In the best tradition of Judy Garland and Mariah “I don’t do stairs” Carey, diva Dom kept them waiting, then from behind a desk gave a preposterous account about testing his eyesight.
Where was the derision from the assembled members of the fourth estate that this nonsense deserved?
The ad feminam attacks on Oakeshott the messenger suggest her media rivals, such as the BBC’s Nick Robinson, are unable fully to compute and accept the message that she has exposed.
Basically, for much of the pandemic, the Johnson Government was clueless and self-serving; if it followed any science whatsoever – beyond pollsters’ algorithms – that science was flawed. Perhaps epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson – who also apparently considered lockdown laws were for little people – can fill the vacancy created by the sad passing of the Sun’s Mystic Meg?
Oakeshott had done the country another favour by turning the spotlight on the Covid-19 Inquiry. The feast of fresh insights provided by the Lockdown Files contrasts with the Inquiry’s current famine.
It is not far off two years since Boris Johnson announced that an inquiry would be set up in the Spring of 2022 “to learn every lesson for the future”, and more than a year since the draft Terms of Reference were drawn up. This coincided with Heather Hallett, the Chair, undertaking that the Inquiry would be “independent, thorough and open”.
Given that the overarching objective of the Inquiry is “to examine the UK’s preparedness and response to the Covid-19 pandemic and to learn lessons for the future”, speed, if not of the essence, should be a major factor.
Last month, the World Health Organisation generated a spate of reports about the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus mutating and being transmitted to humans. Although the risk is judged low, the WHO’s director warned “we cannot assume this will always be the case”.
The Inquiry will hear its first evidence on Tuesday 13 June, as part of Module 1, an investigation into pandemic preparedness. Originally scheduled to begin in May, it is expected to last six weeks.
If the documents released to the public are any guide, Inquiry officials have been kept busy dealing with the hundreds of applicants seeking Core Participant status. Most were rejected. An organisation, an individual or other entity, CPs are judged to have significant interest in the Inquiry and will enjoy participatory rights. They can also apply for an award for their legal expenses.
Previous public inquiries have been a bonanza for my learned friends. The Bloody Sunday Inquiry conducted by Lord Saville into events on 30 January 1972 took 12 years to complete and cost the taxpayer close to £200 million. By 2010, the Inquiry’s legal fees had run to more than £67 million, with £35.5 million clocked up by the Ministry of Defence.
Between 1990 and 2017 successive governments spent £639 million on 68 public inquiries, only for the process for following up recommendations to be “inadequate”, claims the Institute for Government. And three government departments spent more than £300 million on inquiries between April 2015 and June 2020, according to the TaxPayers’ Alliance, in its aptly-named report Kicked into the Long Grass.
Too often inquiries are used by governments to avoid or defer confronting difficulties and inconvenient truths.
Next week is the 20th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. The seven-year Chilcot Inquiry into the conflict, which began under Gordon Brown, finally reported in July 2016, a month after the shock Brexit result. By then, few cared: even Tony Blair seemed weary of the whole business.
Next week will also be the third anniversary of lockdown. In Emergency State, Adam Wagner KC details how more than a hundred new laws restricting our freedom were brought in over the 763 days that followed.
Enabled by statutory instrument and often signed off by the Health Secretary, these laws were almost never debated and “changed at a whim”. Overnight, for example, grouse shooting was suddenly allowed. The Covid Inquiry’s task is enormous.
Baroness Hallett seems unafraid of showing empathy and compassion – something that might not come so easily to a man chairing the Inquiry. This is important: men led the Covid response. Given their personal record of prioritising their own needs over those of their children, it must be wondered how much Johnson or Hancock were bothered about the plight of the nation’s youth.
More than 20,000 people took part in a consultation on the draft Terms of Reference. Consequently, Baroness Hallett widened the Inquiry’s scope: social inequality will be at its forefront.
The consultation’s respondents wanted the impact of the pandemic, and the impact of the government’s response to the pandemic, on children and young people to be prioritised. School closures and the mental health consequences of being isolated from classmates, family and friends were highlighted.
In 2021, a £79 million increase in young people’s mental health support was trumpeted; the Covid-19 Inquiry has reportedly cost £85 million so far, but it is all we have to try and make sense of the policy choices that led to such national self-harm.
The Inquiry will be interrogating the evidence, doing the job that slothful MPs, the Opposition. and the Johnson Government’s media sycophants should have done in the two years after March 2020.
Let’s hope an early recommendation from the Inquiry will be that, in the event of another pandemic, children’s well-being will come first.
And thank you, Isabel Oakeshott.