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.
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.’
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.
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:
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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