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The Covid inquiry has become a headline grabbing display of tittle-tattle

(Alamy)

4 min read

When news of unexplained mass deaths in Wuhan first reached us in 2020, professor Chris Whitty gave us one of his characteristically straight-shooting assessments on the likelihood of a pandemic.

It was a chilling moment of realisation. Once he left the room, one of the SpAds said: “Of course, there’ll be an inquiry.” It was the moment the seriousness of the situation sunk in. 
The inquiry has been on my mind every day since. As a former health minister who was at the Department of Health during the darkest days of the crisis, we have a moral duty to learn the right lessons. Some of it will be tough to take, but we must be better prepared for the next pandemic. 

When fruity WhatsApps were stolen and sold to the newspapers, I told people, yes mistakes were made, but do not judge the country’s achievements by some low-grade digital flotsam. Wait until you read the serious policymaking and thoughtfulness that went into the pandemic response. I promised people they would be amazed by doorstopper submissions from officials, nuanced debate, evidence-based scientific insight. You will be blown away by the seriousness of the enterprise, I told everyone. 

The inquiry has become entangled in the minutiae of personal WhatsApp exchanges and political score settling

I am now suffering reservations. I fear the inquiry has veered off course and has become a stage for political theatrics, gossip and blame-shifting. The serious stuff is being overlooked.
I appreciate the media is headlining the gory details, and there are long days of boring-but-important evidence that goes largely unnoticed – except among Covid experts. 

But I worry this lack of seriousness means the inquiry is widely missing the mark on key questions that could inform future preparedness and crisis management, preferring instead to spend its precious time on the headline grabbing tittle-tattle. 

Given the tens of millions of pounds being spent on this critical inquiry, I was surprised to see a senior official like Sir Patrick Vallance, one of UK’s leading scientific figures, being quizzed on his diary entries instead of serious scientific issues about the pandemic response. The failure to invest in public health, the bum steer on the prospects for a vaccine, and the failure to take advantage of our island status are serious policy questions that have gone unasked and unanswered. 

This misdirection not only fails to serve the purpose of the inquiry to investigate what happened, but also undermines the credibility of valuable scientific input in future crises. 
There is a fixation on colourful personalities and macho political manoeuvring, as though Britain was run by a tiny coterie of career-obsessed political appointments bitching and moaning about each other like an episode of The West Wing. Sure, there are moments like that, but for most people, most of the time, that is not how they conducted themselves. This salaciousness is a distraction from the mentally challenging task of understanding how finely tuned institutions collaborate in the face of fast-changing events and complex, sometimes contradictory, evidence. That’s what the inquiry is paid to do, and we’re not getting value for money. 

The inquiry has become entangled in the minutiae of personal WhatsApp exchanges and political score settling, where unsubstantiated claims are being given undue weight.
Former NHS boss Sir Simon Stevens perhaps summed it up best when he was asked about claims made against the former health secretary Matt Hancock: “Strong accusations need strong evidence to back them up and I don’t think I’ve seen that evidence.” Quite.

My sense is that the public are more interested in fixing the problems than indulging in a distasteful blame game. But it is not too late. The Covid-19 inquiry must quickly refocus its efforts and start asking the right questions.

There will be another pandemic, but next time we must be better prepared. Judging by the worrying news coming out of China about a new mystery pneumonia-type virus spreading among children, the inquiry’s findings are needed sooner rather than later.
We cannot afford to get this wrong. 

 

Lord Bethell, Conservative peer and former health minister

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