Imagine for a moment that Boris Johnson wasn’t Prime Minister when Covid-19 began to spread in Britain at the start of 2020. There’s no Dominic Cummings. No Matt Hancock. Would Britain have been ready?
No. The Department of Health was prepared for a flu pandemic to which the conventional answer was herd immunity – in other words, only the spread of the virus, paradoxically, could stop the virus.
So whoever was serving as Prime Minister, his chief adviser and as Health Secretary would have made next to no difference. Would the Government have locked down faster had, say, Jeremy Corbyn been Prime Minister – or the man who Johnson beat in the Conservative leadership election of 2019, Jeremy Hunt?
Probably. But might Hunt have had to resign in short order, since he had prepared for the wrong pandemic – as he later conceded? Perhaps. And if he hadn’t, or Corbyn had been in place, what about vaccines? Would Hunt or Corbyn have appointed Kate Bingham to chair the Vaccine Task Force, and given it the powers that it needed?
If not, isn’t it likely that Britain would have been stuck in lockdown for longer – as the debate about whether to open up or not, so well put on this site by Damian Green in the autumn of 2020, raged on into 2021? If the vaccines had been developed and distributed later, how much higher would the death count have been?
It would be unfair to ask the Covid Inquiry to deal in counter-factuals. But it’s reasonable to ask it to weigh such questions as: was lockdown necessary in the first place? If it was, to what degree? Might a voluntarist response have traded off less economic damage – and social consequences – for similar death levels?
Such questions are covered by Part 1 VII of the Inquiry’s terms of reference. It will examine “the use of lockdowns and other ‘non-pharmaceutical’ interventions such as social distancing and the use of face coverings”. Whether the Government’s response to the pandemic was right – and whether its preparations were adequate – is the twin matter at the heart of the Inquiry.
Perhaps it will knuckle down to whether Britain needed more, less or the same level of lockdown at some later point. But there has been next to no sign of it this week. Instead, the sum of the questions from learned counsel, in an Inquiry that it is set to cost some £100 million, has been the one for which Lenin is remembered: “who, whom?” Or, as it is sometimes rendered: “who is doing what to whom?”
Or maybe I should say, given the focus of some of the coverage, “who did f*****g what to f*****g whom?” Now, who did what to whom, whether enhanced by asterisks or not, is a unswervable requirement of any probe. It wouldn’t do for me to wag my head censoriously at the media’s preoccupation with Dominic Cummings’s language.
For after all, I’m part of the media – and little details about somone may say a lot about something: in this case, Johnson’s Downing Street. Some 227,000 people died in Britain with Covid-19 listed as one of the causes on their death certificate. Others are still ill, lost work ande, perhaps especially, lost opportunites to study and socialise which may not come again.
These people and others will find no comfort in the fact that Britain ended up in the middle of the pack – not with “the worst death toll in Europe,” as Sir Keir Starmer used to claim. All the same, did we learn anything important this week that we didn’t find out when Cummings gave evidence to Hunt and Greg Clark’s joint Commons Inquiry in the summer of 2021?
Did anyone really said to themselves on Wednesday? “Wow! I always thought Johnson was efficiency made flesh. The scales have fallen from my eyes!” Has a single mind been changed? I doubt it. But either way, the Inquiry settled down this week, as it was always going to do, to play a game as old as humanity, and for which our culture has a particular bent: the assignment of blame.
It didn’t have to be this way. On ConservativeHome back in 2021, David Davis argued for a two stage process: “the first stage, which could start in October, should report on what the best template is within one year, giving us the best possible chance of dealing with another pandemic whenever it appears. The second stage can (and will) take years, and should review what we did right and what we did wrong.”
So Johnson, Cummings, Hancock et al would still have been hauled before the bar – but after, not before, the most useful part of the Inquiry had taken place. But since it works the other way around, much of what it provided this week was theatre. And some of us have seen this show before: remember how Ed Miliband, when an aide to Gordon Brown, was described as “the emissary from Planet F**k“?
Yes, aides and politicians have been known to swear – unlike all the rest of us, including the Inquiry’s massed ranks of counsel, none of whom have ever let the F word pass their lips. I admit to being startled by Simon Case. “Am not sure I can cope with today”, he texted at one point, as well as “I am going to scream”. Admittedly, such feelings may not be unfamiliar to those who have worked with the former Prime Minister.
But one somehow expects Permanent Secretaries to be austere, donnish, Athenaeum-type figures. At any rate, this week’s proceedings have – if nothing else – served many agendas. Johnson is a villain of the piece, willing the deaths of elderly people. (He was making a rational enquiry, several months into the pandemic, about the policy trade-offs, having nearly died earlier of the virus himself.)
So is Cummings. But wait! He was actually in favour of locking down faster. So the Prime Minister’s former adviser is at fault for different reasons. Nice Johnson wanted to end lockdown, you see. But Nasty Cummings stopped him! (Even though Johnson was actually in charge – a neglected point in this version of history.)
I exaggerate. But only slightly. As Cummings points out, Helen McNamara, about whom he was so horridly uncomplimentary, thinks Number Ten was better when he was in place. He also claims that the Head of Public Health England – “nominally the entity responsible for dealing with Covid “- and the Head of Civil Contingencies in the Cabinet Office are not being called to give evidence.
There is a right-wing entertainment industry. Its most diverting creation is the claim that Liz Truss’ premiership was a success, even if most voters failed to notice it at the time. The Left, which doesn’t tend to do jokes these days, lacks an equivalent.
Or has done so to date. Perhaps the Covid Inquiry is finally providing one. We hurl mud and abuse at here-today-gone-tomorrow politicians and their advisers, while the permanent state flourishes like a green bay tree.