The inconvenient questions the Covid inquiry must answer
Baroness Hallett needs to go beyond the direct costs of the disease and quantify the unintended damage that Covid policy inflicted
By Esther McVey
Daily Telegraph Monday 6 March 2023
Who could have guessed that Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages would be so revealing and painful? The Lockdown Files have laid bare the extent to which ministers, civil servants and scientists were allowing political machinations rather than the scientific evidence to drive the catastrophic moves to inflict lockdowns, masks and more on the nation. My hope now, as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on pandemic response and recovery, is that these revelations will prompt the kind of robust debate on Covid policies that we should have had in 2020-21.
One would hope that the official Covid inquiry would provide a platform for that discussion. It has a unique opportunity to hold decision-makers to account, not just for errors that may have resulted in more Covid deaths, but also for errors which have resulted in vast numbers of excess deaths from all sorts of diseases since the lockdowns.
But I fear that interrogation may not happen. There is a major risk that we will end up with an inquiry that focuses disproportionately on small details, such as whether a lockdown should have happened a week earlier, rather than the untold damage done to the nation from the best part of two years of restrictions.
This, ironically, would be to mirror the mistakes of lockdown ministers, who also focused so much on the virus itself that they failed to notice the impact that broad government policies were having on society as a whole. The failure to consider non-clinical factors such as education, non-Covid healthcare and the economy was especially unfair to younger generations, who will be paying the price of this folly for years to come. The Covid inquiry should ask politicians to explain their decisions to the young first.
Very real damage
Along with other MPs and peers, I have already urged Baroness Hallett, the chair of the inquiry, to consider a wider range of voices, in order to avoid it being a whitewash. The inquiry needs to go beyond the direct costs of the disease itself and quantify the losses from the unintended, but very real damage that Covid policy has done. It also needs to ask perhaps the least convenient question of all: should we have stuck to the original pandemic plan, which didn’t advocate mass lockdowns?
Indeed, I still haven’t heard a good answer to the question of why the Pandemic Preparedness Strategy 2011, which was revised in 2014, was seemingly discarded in 2020 without good reason. Lockdowns were never part of the plans or those of 27 other European countries, all of which were published by the European Centre for Disease Control on Feb 5, 2020. Sweden had the courage to stick to the plan, and not only are their mortality rates substantially better than ours, they also crucially avoided some of the collateral damage of lockdowns, which continue to plague Britain.
Moreover, we must not forget that the severity of the disease ended up being much lower than our politicians had made out. While Michael Gove told us in March 2020 that “we are all at risk”, Prof Mark Woolhouse, an infectious disease expert, points out we knew that the virus was “highly discriminatory” as early as February 2020, with age and comorbidities being the crucial factors.
This amounted to the weaponisation of public health messaging, which as Professor Lucy Easthope, a leading expert on emergency and recovery planning, says: “Goes against everything we know about risk communications, making recovery that much harder.” It should be another matter for the inquiry.
The inquiry might also wish to ask, in light of the revelations in the Lockdown Files, why it seems that the system of government can be manipulated by a couple of overzealous ministers or officials. And it should analyse how much was done just for the sake of appearing to do something, leading to many unnecessary restrictions. These are not easy matters, but they made a great deal of difference when it mattered.
As one of only a handful of Tory MPs who has consistently spoken and voted against Covid restrictions, it has been quite obvious to me that our cure has been worse than the disease. The Covid inquiry should take views like mine seriously, but will it have the courage to do so? I once again urge Baroness Hallett to find the integrity and boldness she needs to assess the policy of lockdown and other mandates honestly and fully.