The Guardian view on the Covid report: a reckoning begins

By Editorial
Chris Whitty, Patrick Vallance and Boris Johnson ahead of a press conference in Downing Street on September 14, 2021
From left: Chris Whitty, Patrick Vallance and Boris Johnson. ‘The review’s remit was purposefully narrow. It says very little about the wider impact of the pandemic on the NHS.’ Photograph: WPA/Getty Images

The report published on Monday by two parliamentary committees is a stage in a longer process of learning from, and demanding accountability for, the UK government’s handling of the pandemic. Rightly, its authors call for the judge-led public inquiry into the disaster to start “as soon as possible”. The chair of the health and social care committee, Jeremy Hunt, and the chair of the science and technology committee, Greg Clark, are serious politicians with a degree of independence from Boris Johnson’s administration. But they are also both former Conservative cabinet members. So there can be no pretence that this preliminary review constitutes anything approaching a fully independent verdict. It is no surprise that some families bereaved during the past year and a half have angrily rejected it.

That said, the World Health Organization’s special envoy on Covid, Dr David Nabarro, has described the process as a “dense learning moment”. And it makes sense to take from the exercise what is useful, while recognising its limits. Many of the conclusions are unsurprising (the report focuses mostly on England, only now and then commenting on decisions taken by the devolved administrations). The flawed thinking that led to the delay in the initial lockdown, the lack of overall preparedness, and the slow and clumsy implementation of a test, trace and isolate programme: all these are familiar themes of the government’s many critics.

Nor will strong words about the way that the social care sector was excluded and neglected by decision-makers startle anyone, though it is good that the report takes the opportunity to point to wider failings, including a continued lack of clarity about new funding. The “intense interaction” between the NHS and social care has been a blind spot for far too long. Also welcome is the admission that councils were better placed than central government to oversee the test-and-trace system. This vastly expensive failure was not in any real sense an NHS programme, as the report points out in one of its more acerbic sections, “despite its branding”.

The disproportionate death toll among black and minority ethnic people, and younger adults with learning disabilities, is also highlighted. Specific policies to address health inequalities must be delivered in response. An apparent reluctance to learn from the pandemic experience and expertise of Asian countries is another instructive finding. Among the report’s conclusions are that the UK should be less insular when it comes to choosing experts and that ministers should be more adept at challenging them. Less secrecy and more transparency are part of this.

But the report also spares the government’s blushes. It lets the prime minister off the hook for the decision to plough on through autumn 2020, ignoring calls for a “circuit break” mini-lockdown. And while the scientists and medical staff who first developed and then delivered treatments and vaccines can justly be held up as sources of national pride, in this context the self-congratulatory tone jars.

The review’s remit was purposefully narrow. It says very little about the wider impact of the pandemic on the NHS, or what went on inside hospitals. Staff shortages that were already acute before Covid are now approaching an emergency. Also missing, except in fragments, is the wider political and social context. Why, for example, did the government decide early on (wrongly) that the British public “would not accept a lockdown for a significant period”? From the outset, as Prof Devi Sridhar has said, the aim should have been to “buy time without losing lives”. That ministers initially refused to do this was a culpable failure. Mr Clark declined, when interviewed, to suggest a timeframe for the public inquiry. This was disappointing. By far the best thing now for the country, and particularly the bereaved, would be to get on with it.

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