Emily Carver is a writer and broadcaster.
It has been estimated that the Covid inquiry will cost us £100 million. The final figure could of course end up much higher, as with similar inquiries. But we’re promised government will learn lessons for the future.
The enormous bill could be worth it if the public gets the answers to the questions it cares about, and if the machine of government learns from its failures. Ultimately, we all want the government to be better prepared if and when the next deadly virus comes to our shores.
However, judging by what we’ve seen over the past few days, one could be forgiven for being a tad sceptical. Could it be that my former colleague, Professor Len Shackleton, was right when he warned that “catharsis, blame and retribution will play a far more prominent role in the Covid investigation than, say, establishing facts”?
Did we actually learn anything new from the disgruntled former Number 10 chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, for example, who dominated the news on Tuesday, besides the extent of his guttermouth?
Well, before this week, we had a clear idea of how he looks back on his time working with Boris Johnson, not least from his own personal blog and the assessment that he gave in front of a House of Commons committee two years’ ago.
Then, he accused the former Prime Minister of treating Covid like a “scare story”, caring more about economic damage than the virus and changing his mind all the time.
Fast forward to this week, and Cummings continued in the same vein. Indeed, when he was asked whether there was any part of the government machine that he found to be fault-free, he said only “British Special Forces”.
He explained how, in his view, the Cabinet couldn’t function due to its size, constant leaks and the Prime Minister’s inability to chair it, describing Cabinet meetings as “Potemkin meetings” – there for show but little else.
He told how he believes the Cabinet Secretary is 10 times or 100 times more powerful than anyone in Cabinet except for the Prime Minister – a striking insight, though not unique to Johnson’s government.
Speaking about the Cabinet Office, he painted a picture of chaos, disorganisation, and misogyny, describing it as “a bombsite” and a “dumpster fire”.
He spoke of the failures of Cobra to deal with this war-like crisis, and how taskforces such as the Vaccine Taskforce, Test and Trace Taskforce and the PPE taskforce were created as a result of the Department of Health underperforming and behing overwhelmed.
He also spoke of bad advice being given by scientists at the start of the pandemic, with SAGE initially recommending the strategy of ‘herd immunity’ rather than lockdown. He noted that Number 10 should have had more tools to interpret the scientific data they were receiving.
Cummings went on to claim that one of the reasons borders weren’t closed sooner was because it would be deemed “racist”, and that closing them sooner would have enabled us to keep the economy going to a greater extent.
Clearly, Cummings believed he knew best, that we should have been pushed into lockdown sooner – and tighter restrictions should have been placed on our borders.
Judging by the line of questioning so far throughout the inquiry, the preferred narrative appears to be established. That the government is guilty in so far as it didn’t move quick enough or go far enough with its measures.
But many of us want to know whether the series of lockdowns we lived under were justified, whether they had the intended consequences, and whether the harms were considered soon enough, if at all.
Fundamentally, was adequate thought given to a cost-benefit analysis of the impact on our country, economy and society?
Why were children, for example, left out of the original scope of the inquiry, when their lives were so negatively impacted? Why was it that schools were closed with little regard to the impact? Where was the cost-benefit analysis that concluded schools had to be closed to save lives? And on that point, can the government tell us how many lives were saved from closing schools?
More broadly, why did we choose an authoritarian approach to virus control, rather than follow the example of Sweden? Does the government and its advisers still stand by this decision, considering the number of lives lost due to the measures imposed?
How was it decided that we would lock down young healthy people at little risk of the virus, instead of shielding the vulnerable? Where was the cost-benefit analysis of cordoning off outdoor exercise areas, or park benches? And crucially, why weren’t citizens allowed to make these decisions for themselves?
Did the Government ever make decisions due to pressure from the media, the public health lobby, and unions rather than from scientific data? Did those in power still believe it was right to terrify the nation into submissions with their fear-mongering campaigns warning us to stay away from our loved ones? And why did the rules constantly change and at very little notice?
These are the questions I, and millions of others, want the answers to. Essentially, was it worth it, and will we be forced to lockdown again come another virus? Perhaps this will come when Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak take to the stage, but I won’t hold my breath.