UK Covid-19 Inquiry opens to backdrop of exposé of Johnson’s Party-gate lies
Tony O’Sullivan is Co-Chair of Keep Our NHS Public
I attended the opening of the Hallett inquiry on Tuesday 13 June in London – an important and welcome milestone. It had taken 398 days between then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson promising to meet the Covid-19 Bereaved Families For Justice (CBFFJ) and the first meeting.
This unforgivable behaviour and Johnson’s refusal to announce a public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic led Keep Our NHS Public to set up the People’s Covid Inquiry, of which I was one of the organisers.
And it was a further three months before Johnson announced the inquiry and inquiry chair, Baroness Heather Hallett. Since then, inevitably for public inquiries, it has taken Hallett 18 months to put a team together, to gain agreement to terms of reference from Johnson and to plan this inquiry of unprecedented complexity. Our application for core participant status for the opening module was rejected by the inquiry.
Johnson misled Parliament on ‘Party-gate’ and failed to lead the country through the pandemic
Media coverage has been dominated by the Commons Privileges Committee concluding that Johnson lied serially and held parliament in contempt – that is: he has been guilty of misconduct in public office.
The opening of the Inquiry comes almost to the day two years after the conclusion of the People’s Covid Inquiry, organised by KONP February to June 2021 and chaired by leading human rights barrister Michael Mansfield KC. The report of the panel of inquiry is entitled ‘Misconduct in Public Office’. Based on contemporaneous testimony from over 44 witnesses including bereaved family members, NHS workers, union leaders and academics, the evidence suggested that the potential common law offence of the same name may have been committed and it pointed to the possible culpability of the serious offences of corporate manslaughter.
We referred our suspicions to the Metropolitan Police on 21 December 2021 supplying them with the report with references to the supporting evidence and calling for an investigation. Ironically, it was a few days prior to Day 1 of the Hallett Inquiry, in a letter dated 8 June, that Keep Our NHS Public finally got a reply from the Metropolitan Police to our referral 18 months earlier. They declined to pursue criminal investigation, clearly not taking into consideration the mass of evidence collected by our inquiry. Instead, they pointing to the official inquiry, now in session, as the way to investigate the concerns we raised.
No plan for the ‘Reasonable Worst-Case Scenario’
Day 1 heard opening statements from the Inquiry legal team and the Core Participants. We heard that the whole point of pandemic planning, and the duty of government, is to predict pandemic dangers and to act in the interests of the population by planning for the reasonable worst-case scenario (‘RWCS’) – and to take action. This the Government patently failed to do.
Already on Day 1, there are resounding echoes of the findings and recommendations from our People’s Covid Inquiry report published in December 2021.
The opening statements carried a heavy indictment of government and ministers. We heard that the Cabinet Office told the National Audit Office that the current government’s ‘risk appetite’ had changed. And again, that Matt Hancock was advised against publication of the Exercise Cygnus pandemic planning recommendations (which had not been acted on) because that would open the government to criticism of lack of preparedness. Hancock kept the report secret until he was forced to publish it.
Those in government must be held accountable for the decisions they took that inescapably contributed to the avoidable deaths of so many thousands.
The revelations coming out in the inquiry even on Day 1 already point a heavy finger of blame at the culpable attitudes and practice of Johnson, Hancock, and governments current and prior. It is unacceptable that it took the persistence and courage of the CBFFJ to shame Boris Johnson into finally agreeing to an inquiry in December 2021. However, better late than never.
‘We are so aware the society wants to move on, but we cannot…’
After Baroness Hallett’s opening statement there was a very moving 18-minute video with many bereaved families and covid survivors – proof, Hallett said, that they were going to have victims and bereaved at the heart of the inquiry.
Vital testimony of bereaved families downgraded
It is a shame that the inquiry team has refused the request of CBFFJ to hear from 20 witnesses, a small enough sample of the 6500 families they represent and a tiny sample of the 226,977 bereaved families.
Opening statements on Day 1
The barrister for CBFFJ asked why were predictions, including by then PM David Cameron in 2015, of far worse pandemics than swine flu (2009) ignored. He said the Cabinet Office had told the National Audit Office that the government’s ‘risk appetite’ had changed. There were many references to the distraction of Brexit, Johnson’s ‘raison d’être’, causing policy and planning to stall. Ongoing austerity was justified by George Osborne in 2015 as an act ‘to fix the roof when the sun is shining’ but the barrister from the Doctors in Unite core participant statement prepared by Jonathan Fluxman, stated that the impact of austerity on public health and pandemic planning was akin to ‘stripping the lead off the roof to make the buckets to catch the rain’.
The impact of austerity was like ‘stripping the lead off the roof to make the buckets to catch the rain’.
An ‘organogram’ of the UK Government’s Emergency Preparedness Resilience and Response Framework (EPRR) was so complex and incoherent as to draw gasps of disbelief. There was doubt thrown on whether the government had any plans for the ‘reasonable worst-case scenario’, the accepted cornerstone of civil emergency planning; and there was scepticism that the UK had bothered to learn anything from those countries that had had to deal with SARS in Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan; or that a potential to have to impose ‘lockdown’ and any assessment of the huge consequences had been considered.
Failures on PPE, test and trace and NHS surge capacity
The BMA counsel, Brian Stanton pointed to the grave failure to prepare for the need for adequate PPE and that ‘PPE guidance was based not on safety but rather the lack of preparedness’; and that government and NHS England were still refusing to recommend appropriate FFP2 and FFP3 masks in place of totally inadequate simple surgical masks. He said the failure to use 44 pre-existing NHS laboratories, replaced by an over-reliance on both private sector and the [public-private partnership] Lighthouse labs, had seriously undermined the contact tracing and testing capacity. And there was no surge capacity left in the NHS and public health despite the need for this being stated in the Exercises Cygnus (2016) and Pica (2018).
Austerity and conflict of priorities
Mr Jacobs for the TUC highlighted the damage done by austerity: £14bn cuts from social services and benefits; in-work poverty; the cuts to Health & Safety Executive funding from £231m to £123m, rendering it only capable of responding to 47 out of 6000 workplace referrals during the pandemic. And he highlighted the parlous state of unreadiness in the social care sector, with no structure whatever to have any overview of the 18,000 different organisations providing adult social care. He highlighted the starkly divergent priorities of the Government shown by Sunak spending £840m on his ‘Eat out to Help Out’ scheme [which spread Covid dramatically in the summer of 2020] and a mere £50m given to local authorities to support workers in self-isolation.
‘Learn lessons, save lives’ – but when?
Lead Counsel to the Inquiry, Hugo Keith said that ‘there may be a need to make urgent recommendations so that we may be better prepared in the event of the next civil emergency’. I hope this happens.
Michael Mansfield has long called for an urgently convened fast track official inquiry to identify those ‘manifestly obvious findings’ and accompanying recommendations that were so badly needed to ‘learn lessons and save lives’ – the title of the People’s Covid Inquiry in 2021. Sadly, this was anathema to a government scared to expose their role in the pandemic to public scrutiny. And the tens of thousands of avoidable deaths continued.
The time to learn lessons and save lives in this pandemic was two years ago. Though Covid continues to infect and damage millions in the UK and around the world, it is of course now too late for lessons learned to reduce the heavy and avoidable death toll of 226,977 people with Covid on their death certificate, quoted by the inquiry barrister Hugo Keith KC. However, the lessons learned – if acted on – could still save hundreds of thousands of lives in the future pandemics we know are inevitable.
Hallett has committed to publishing her report immediately at the end of each module, of which there will be several, convened consecutively over the next three years. The final impact of the inquiry will not be clear until well after the next General Election, inevitably reducing the political damage to the current government.
However, we can only hope that the recommendations of the official inquiry for future pandemics will be implemented and save lives in future.
Tony O’Sullivan, Co-Chair Keep Our NHS Public
For those interested in the incredibly rich and in-depth evidence, findings and recommendations from our People’s Covid Inquiry, please have a look around the website and download the full report or the chapter by chapter pdfs at:
People’s Covid Inquiry home page
Misconduct in Public Office – Why did so many thousands die unnecessarily?
Download the individual sections and chapters
Watch and read up on each of the nine sessions videos, witness statements and reference material
At the end of each session, there is a link ‘READ SESSION SUMMARY’