Commons Covid Report is damning, but a wasted opportunity to learn urgent lessons

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The House of Commons Health and Social Care, and Science and Technology Committees joint report Coronavirus: lessons learned to date was published 12 October. Despite outlining some mistakes in the Government’s early response, which will surprise next to no one, the report and the spin on it rests most of the blame on public health bodies rather than the Government, and of course Prime Minister Boris Johnson gets off almost scot-free. 

While recognising failure on the ‘serious mistake’ of halting mass testing in March 2020 for example, on the fatal error of delaying the first lockdown, the report makes evasions and excuses:

‘This slow and gradualist approach was not inadvertent, nor did it reflect bureaucratic delay or disagreement between ministers and their advisers. It was a deliberate policy – proposed by official scientific advisers and adopted by the governments of all of the nations of the UK.’

Despite being critical of aspects of the Government’s response the report is nonetheless a whitewash covering up the worst political failures of this Government. The two chairs are Conservative MP Jeremy Hunt, who served as Health Secretary from 2012 to 2018, and Conservative MP Greg Clark. As the reports’ co-lead Jeremy Hunt is predictably providing cover for his own role in the years leading up to the pandemic. As Secretary of State for Health, Hunt sank the NHS into a crisis which left it and the population totally exposed when the pandemic arrived – leaving the problems of insufficient staff (100,000 hospital vacancies and a shortage of over 7000 GPs), a lack of hospital beds and equipment, insufficient ventilators, crumbling NHS estate, depleted public health and low morale. He also failed to act on the pandemic planning Exercise Cygnus 2016 and claims not to have even been aware of the Exercise Alice, also in 2016, into coronavirus pandemic planning. All explained away neatly:

‘The NHS responded quickly and strongly to the demands of the pandemic, but compared to other health systems it
“runs hot”—with little spare capacity built in to cope with sudden and unexpected surges of demand such as in a pandemic.‘ [para 63]

Being the sugar-coated whitewash of the Government’s historic handling of the NHS it is, this report is a wasted opportunity to learn the essential lessons and save lives. But that’s not the intention here, this is little more than a political manoeuvre by those desperate to cover their tracks. The political failures responsible for 10s of 1000s of avoidable deaths are buried.

Conservative MP Jeremy Hunt, who served as Health Secretary from 2012 to 2018

Undeniable failures

The report only acknowledges what is already undeniable: this has been ‘one of the UK’s worst ever public health failures. It provides partial explanations: ‘Groupthink’ amongst government advisors and ministers, attitudes of ‘British exceptionalism’, a deliberately ‘slow and gradualist’ approach, based on totally inappropriate use of ‘herd immunity’ theory. Fatal inaction and delays meant that the UK fared ‘significantly worse’ than other countries. The report points to ‘major deficiencies in the machinery of government’, with public bodies unable to share vital information and scientific advice impaired by a lack of transparency, input from international experts and meaningful challenge. (Guardian 12 October 2021)

Hiding political failures behind science and medical successes

Hunt and the report bend over backwards to say that the problems caused by ‘groupthink’ were balanced by the success of the vaccine and the medical advances developed in Britain. By doing so he provides cover for the political failures of both Johnson’s government and his own tenure as Secretary of State before the hapless Matt Hancock took over in 2018.

On the Today programme Hunt talks of how ‘groupthink’ assumed that the pandemic was like a flu virus, and makes it almost understandable and forgivable. With this virtual absolution to Government, he conveniently absolves himself too in his previous role as Health Secretary. And he has insulted bereaved families by describing the pandemic as a ‘game of two halves.’

The Covid Memorial Wall, initiated by Covid-19 Bereaved Families Campaign

Ignoring bereaved families’ experience

Hannah Brady, of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, is completely right to criticise the report. It provides a whitewash for the Government’s culpability. The responsibility for the horrific reality of the deaths of 150,000 people is “redeemed” by the success of the vaccine programme and the medical treatments developed in the UK. As she says

‘The report … is laughable and more interested in political arguments about whether you can bring laptops to Cobra meetings than it is in the experiences of those who tragically lost parents, partners or children to Covid-19. This is an attempt to ignore and gaslight bereaved families, who will see it as a slap in the face.’

Lessons still to be learned

Our People’s Covid Inquiry took the opposite approach and heard testimony from bereaved families, frontline staff and expert scientists and clinicians. By so doing, our inquiry addressed the catastrophic death rate and the disastrous effect on the BAME population, zero hours workers, frontline staff, on children’s education and mental health, and the economy – and the catastrophic policies that had left the NHS, public health, and social care so vulnerable to failure.

It is unforgivable that the government pursued the herd immunity argument to protect the economy. The Government must be held to account for the combined outcome: one of the worst levels of avoidable deaths, the worst economic impact of the OECD countries, and one of the worst examples of profit-taking as Government cronies and political contacts and hundreds of private companies benefited from the country’s worst public health disaster. 

Image advertising the People's Covid Inquiry
Find out more about the People’s Covid Inquiry here

On 7th of July this year, our People’s Covid Inquiry released what we called our ‘Manifestly obvious and requiring urgent action’. In it we outlined 7 urgent recommendations: 

Recommendation 1

That established public health measures, supported by the World Health Organisation, and known to be effective in lowering everyday risks, be urgently implemented in the UK, including: 

(a)  effective find, test, trace, isolate services with economic support for isolation and quarantine. 

(b)  based in local public health and local authorities in liaison with an effective national public health system 

(c)  with effective protection against aerosol transmission by the wearing of masks and sensible social distancing in enclosed indoor spaces 

(d)  employment of strict border measures for infection-control purposes

Recommendation 2

That medium to long-term health policy addresses social inequality, including overcrowding, poor quality housing, food insecurity, investing in recovery that tackles the root causes of health inequalities including: 

(a)  integrating health considerations into future housing and urban development, with healthy housing and equitable access to public spaces for safe physical activity for travel or leisure to build future resilience 

(b)  providing and regulating guidelines to ensure adequate ventilation in enclosed spaces, notably workspaces and schools

Recommendation 3

That the UK fulfils its international obligations to prevent the spread of disease by ensuring global distribution of vaccines and support for technology transfer and IP waiver, and by the termination of vaccine nationalism.

Recommendation 4

The pandemic provides both rationale and opportunity to invest in the NHS and a public sector health and care service that could once again be the envy of the world; the UK did this in 1948 and can lead the world again now. This investment includes not only hospital beds, but the workforce, primary care, diagnostic labs, social care, and public health. We do not dismiss the private sector, but to promote it at the expense of the public sector does the nation a huge disservice and weakens us for the future.

Recommendation 5

That it is possible, and urgent, to restore and grow NHS capacity and NHS staff morale with a statement of commitment to public services, backed up by urgent real terms restoration of level of funding to expand the NHS workforce and reinvigorate the publicly provided NHS and its workforce.

Recommendation 6

That the previously universally admired performance of the NHS can be restored if the Government ends its policy of bypassing and undermining public services in favour of awarding contracts to the private sector for procurement and the provision of clinical services for NHS patients in place of NHS provision.

Recommendation 7

An independent public Judicial Inquiry is needed now. 

The joint House of Commons Health and Social Care, and Science and Technology Committees report still falls staggeringly short of these manifestly obvious recommendations.

The People’s Covid Inquiry report will be published soon. Meanwhile all our evidence is available here

Keep Our NHS Public

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  1. Why am I not surprised. Everything this government has done in the last twelve years has been a disaster for the ordinary people of this country and the sooner they are kicked out of office, the better. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown the tories at their worst and shown their fuehrer to be a lying,bungling incompetent with no conscience and no common sense.

  2. This government are, without any doubt,culpable in social murder… No ifs no buts. Johnson wanted herd immunity from get go and was on GMB stating that in March 2020 for everyone to hear… That policy never changed coupled with deliberate crippling of the NHS due to privatisation, hiding in plain sight.. chronic underfunding since they took power, bed shortages, staff shortages and burn out.. these people do not meet the first principle of Govt of “first do no harm”, in fact quite the opposite. An inquiry led by your mates is a Whithall whitewash. Thank goodness for campaigns like We Own It, Just Treatment and Everydoctor. The Brits need to wake up and shake up.

  3. The people of this country, through their ‘political ignorance by choice’ mindset are the most complacent, fatalistic and totally lacking in guts to defend themselves from an evil Government that has committed manslaughter on a national scale!

    Worse still, the majority of the public, don’t give a damn!

    The reality is that our society is based on the principle of every person for themselves, and anyone speaking the truth is shot down in flames. Indeed, trying to educate people as to what is going on, gets the response of either, Fake News, or Nothing I can do, so stop telling me!!

    Until such attitudes change, this nation is totally screwed and will lose the NHS for good!

    • I think a lot of what you complain about is due to the uk’s “package” political system.Each party has a manifesto of promised actions (often broken). In order to see one acceptable aim succeed voters have to vote for a package which also opens the door to a number of unacceptable actions. The hapless voter is then faced with campaigning on those issues against the party he/she elected to power. This generates enormous cynicism and frustration. Apart from referenda which can be swayed by powerful media controllers and others,changes need to be made so that electors can vote influentially more on issues and less for individuals and partys. So far as the latter two are concerned it might be a start for all ballot papers to have a valid “none of these “option to show how many of the public considser themselves practically disenfranchised by the present system.

  4. Thank God I joined the sdp and not help elect this disastrous Government in December 2019 or Labour this government is led by a known liar who has been dismissed from every job He has held for lying He must go and Go now

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