The joint report from the Health and Social Care and Science and Technology Committees on lessons from Covid was in many ways a forerunner of the full public inquiry – due to begin in spring next year at the earliest. Based on extensive testimony of many of the key players, it offered the most detailed description yet of the UK’s handling of the pandemic.
The final report bears both the strengths and weaknesses of its authorship – it was overseen by two experienced former Conservative ministers (expert interrogators who show a natural sympathy for the challenges of ministerial office) and agreed, line by line, by committees of MPs from across the house.
While there are few new revelations its judgments are, at times, damning, and the report’s reception demonstrated there is still significant appetite for understanding what went wrong. The government’s response so far suggests it has work to do to heed that.
The initial response to the crisis was one of the UK’s “one of the most important public health failures the UK has ever experienced”. There were “persistent failings” within government, in part caused by “groupthink” among ministers, scientists and officials. NHS Test and Trace acted as a “drag anchor” on later efforts to get the pandemic under control. The discharge of patients into care homes showed a “damaging” lack of thought for social care. None of these criticisms are new, but their restatement here, with the weight of oral evidence behind them, is nonetheless valuable.
The document strives for a sense of balance, citing a number of “big achievements” and claiming that “the success of the vaccine programme has redeemed many of the persistent failings of other parts of the national response”. Such wording may be an inevitable reflection of long debates in committee rooms. But it risks asserting a false equivalence – the totality of the evidence presented suggests that, on balance, the UK still had a very bad pandemic.
Elsewhere, the report provokes further questions. The discussion of the delayed first lockdown is detailed and nuanced, concluding with a judgement that it was “astonishing” that SAGE did not recommend a full lockdown earlier. What is missing, though, is a sense of the relationship between ministers and advisers, and how flawed incentives contributed to bad decisions.
Having painstakingly examined the March delay, the report then has little to say about delays to later lockdown decisions in autumn and winter, when scientific advice was quite different. The delay in December – when the Delta variant was known about, and a vaccine was coming – was arguably the most costly and avoidable mistake of all. Did ministers fail to learn from earlier mistakes?
The committees are right to look beyond decisions made in the moment to the wider causes of a lack of resilience. Risk planning – as my colleague Alex Thomas argued giving evidence to the inquiry – has for too long been in a box marked “Civil Contingencies” rather than reaching into the way departments operate. Many risks were identified but not carried through into operational plans. Chaos over shortages in recent weeks does not instil confidence that the government has yet gripped these problems and understood how to plan more effectively for emergencies.
The report has some sensible recommendations on ensuring the Civil Contingencies Secretariat can “stress test” departmental planning. But the wider context for debates about resilience should be the very tight spending settlement that Rishi Sunak is expected to deliver later this month. The government will need to set out how, as it asks many areas to make further cuts, it proposes to balance efficiency with the need to ensure government can adapt better to future threats.
If this report was a forerunner of the main event, we must hope that the government engages more constructively with the public inquiry. Number 10 issued a cursory statement, citing the “phenomenal vaccination programme” and the lives it had saved, while insisting the prime minister is “committed to learning lessons”. Ministers on broadcast rounds took various lines; Steve Barclay was first out and refused to offer any apology, insisting decisions were taken following scientific advice. The government is due to offer a full response to the committee’s report within six weeks.
But its response so far seems in step with the underlying messages of Boris Johnson’s party conference speech – that via the vaccine rollout he got Covid done in the same way he got Brexit done, and people were ready to move on. No doubt the prime minister is keen to do so, and no doubt many people are too. But many others – including in the media – still want to understand what went wrong and why; and, critically, what steps have been taken to ensure those mistakes are not repeated. A government that ignores that could regret this approach.