Presided over by Baroness Hallet – a crossbench peer, and former High Court Judge – the current ongoing COVID Inquiry aims to respond to collective concerns about the event: to identify errors and flaws, and learn lessons for the future. The public hearings, which are set to last from 3rd October to the 14th December this year, have already featured several key figures, and witnesses so far include Matt Hancock, Jeremy Hunt, Sir Chris Whitty, Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson. More recently, former Deputy Secretary Helen Macnamara was also asked to appear. And, although nearly four years and a host of political changes have occurred since the COVID-19 outbreak, as these hearings continue, COVID’s deep-rooted impact – on both the public, and the government – seems more prevalent than ever.
Many agree that the government’s initial response to COVID-19 was quite chaotic – as we might expect. Within only a few months of the initial appearance of the virus, a global pandemic was upon us, with the UK in its first lockdown by 23rd March 2020. Officials had to work very fast, often with limited or contradictory information; it was everyone’s first pandemic. However, as the months progressed, this chaos only seemed to deepen; and similarly, as the inquiry continues now, a tangle of confused and confusing decisions, taken by increasingly callous leaders, appears to be emerging.
There are reports of Boris Johnson spreading a Youtube video – since removed – of someone blow-drying their nostrils as a supposed “cure” for COVID; there are also reports of him describing COVID as merely ‘nature’s way of dealing with old people’; of him ‘no longer buying’ that the NHS could conceivably become overwhelmed by the influx of patients; of him jokily calling Sunak’s cabinet the ‘pro-death’ squad, and the list goes on. The fact these sentiments are attributed to a country’s Prime Minister – supposedly its guide and guardian through difficult times – is obviously disappointing; when compared to the sacrifices millions of others made, his words become even starker. It is worth mentioning also that older voters – exactly those most targeted by Johnson – often make up a higher proportion of conservative votes; a double betrayal from Johnson’s party, then.
But Johnson’s startling indifference, despite his own personal experience with the virus, is only the beginning. What is also becoming increasingly clear, is the way that actual science seems to have been ignored or manipulated to suit the interests of the government, not the people. Sir Chris Whitty expressed his concerns with Sunak’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ – calling it ‘eat out to help out the virus’ – but was ignored. There were also frequent calls from many high-ranking Tories and advisors that the economic impact of lockdowns was simply not being given enough thought. Despite strong scientific evidence to the contrary, it was suggested that a circuit-breaker lockdown in 2020 should be ‘strongly resisted’.
For people who had to watch their loved ones die through a window, economic concerns were maybe not at the forefront of their minds. And, this systematic deficiency of empathy and inability to see beyond their own selves – an ‘absence of humanity’, as described by Helen Macnamara in her testimony – perhaps remains COVID’s deepest wound to the government.
As restrictions were eased in the later stages of the pandemic, grouse-shooting was declared legal; outdoor playdates for children were not. Restrictions around pregnancy, childcare, domestic abuse – issues which typically affect women more than men – were much slower to adapt and change, and the environment even within Westminster was especially unpleasant for women, whose concerns were frequently overshadowed by other voices. Dominic Cummings’ vitriolic and explicit messages about Macnamara – only now revealed in the recent inquiry – serves only to reinforce this idea, and widens the circle of those failed by the government even to those who work there.
In every sense, then – on class, gender, wealth and age lines – it appears that the government failed: failed its country, the people who worked under it, and the duty it owed the electorate. Going beyond Partygate and the more scandalous and well-publicised tales from the time, this inquiry seems to delve further and highlight this. It builds up a picture of cumulative, systemic indifference, and a government that truly did not care. And in the months leading up to a general election – where personal and emotional responses to politics matter so much – it will be interesting to see if this legacy of COVID will continue to cast a shadow on the Conservatives.