BY ZACH ROBERTS
Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Government has been criticised for its initial pandemic response by a parliamentary report into the handling of coronavirus in the UK. The PM is pictured here on March 18th, 2020, the day schools were shut in the UK.
Last week’s COVID Inquiry Report from a Joint Committee of MPs headed by former Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt was a damning indictment of the malpractice and inaction undertaken by the Government in the last 18 months. However, it takes more than just one stern-worded document to hold Boris Johnson and his Government properly to account for the string of errors and complacency that has defined their response to the ‘biggest peacetime challenge’ faced by the UK.
To cut them some slack, we must remember that the UK is certainly not the only country to have struggled with keeping the pandemic at bay. The highly criticised approach of attempting to achieve herd immunity to control the virus in early 2020 was an internationally popular approach. There is also a spattering of other errors and lapses of judgment that can perhaps be forgiven individually. But when compounded, especially during a global pandemic, forgiveness becomes impossible. Additionally, what certainly cannot be forgiven, is the way in which the expertise available were ignored when it came to making major decisions.
The report does at least adequately address this fact, with references to the overly delayed decision for both the initial lockdown in March and the firebreak lockdown in November, as the scientific suggestion had been to lockdown a month prior in both cases. Additionally, closure, or at the very least, management, of the borders was also put on hold for far too long and was arguably a crucial factor in the spread of the Delta variant that led to the third lockdown going into 2021. Additionally, pandemic projection predictions that were undertaken in 2016 highlighted the need for stockpiles of goods and PPE as well as a competent track and trace system.
These are obviously then crucial components of pandemic management and, understandably, a crisis of this scale requires delegation. However, invitations to help were largely handed out on a basis of nepotism rather than by merit. There were multiple instances of contracts being given to individuals or corporations with former personal or financial links to the Conservative party or specific MPs. Most notably, Dido Harding headed the Track and Trace system, despite questions surrounding the legality of the appointment as well as Baroness Harding already being familiar amongst senior Tory circles while also being married to Conservative MP, John Penrose.
In contrast, there’s a widely shared sentiment that the existing infrastructures, both in health, social care and otherwise were not properly supported or suitably backed financially prior to the pandemic, let alone during it, while millions were being splashed on questionable COVID contracts. The lack of PPE put NHS personnel and care home staff at risk, teachers were left stranded by the incompetence of Gavin Williamson, who twice had to cancel school examinations while making it abundantly clear that he had no contingency plan.
What’s worse is again this idea of a lack of proper and immediate consequence. Williamson was only removed from his role as Education Secretary in the last cabinet reshuffle; serial ladies’ man Matt Hancock wasn’t even sacked from his role as Health Secretary for malpractice or corrupt contract dealings. Instead, he resigned in shame after forgetting his own office had CCTV. Conversely those rewarded with cabinet promotions have questionable credibility for earning such. Liz Truss, who’s greatest accomplishment is ranting about foreign cheese, is now our foreign secretary. Secondly Rishi Sunak, who has allegedly clashed on COVID policy with Boris Johnson on several occasions remains a crucial part of the cabinet in his role of Chancellor, sparking suggestions that perhaps another Blair-Brown pact is emerging at Number 10.
Critiques aside, the report is also right when it says that credit where credit is due, as it is no lie that the UK has one of the most efficient and successful vaccine rollouts with much of Europe and the rest of the world lacking behind. It’s the crucial aspect behind why a certain sense of normality has been restored over the summer.
However, it is vital to remember that the same sense of complacency that defined the early pandemic response cannot carry on now. The vaccine alone is not enough, especially with the risk that future variants of the virus will not be compatible with the current vaccines available. Yes, hospital rates and the daily COVID-related deaths may be down, but the risk of the virus has not yet been entirely eradicated, and while we can enjoy this return to a sense of normality, we must remain vigilant.
It’s also important to consider the aspects of our lives that have been affected by the pandemic that now must be focused on. A whole generation of school children have missed out on a considerable proportion of their school lives, which runs the risk of stunting both their intellectual and social development. Both our health and legal sectors are seeing a huge backlog of treatments and cases respectively, and this cannot be rectified without appropriate support and investment from the Government.
The Select Committees Report is an important step. A fundamental component of our political system that has arguably contributed to the string of errors seen throughout this pandemic is the lack of appropriate scrutiny of our political officials. While it is highly unlikely that current generations face another health crisis of this scale in our lifetimes, the most important lesson to learn as a society is that of accountability. The current political system in the UK tends to reward failure. Many are dissatisfied, disheartened, or distressed by the way in which the pandemic, lockdown and future contingencies have been handled.
Yet the Conservatives still lead in every major national poll - whether that says more about the state of them, or Labour is an entirely different question. The issue with Committee reports, however, is that while they are widely respected within Westminster, they lack the authoritative power to bring about any substantial change as a result. And while this hindsight approach is necessary, the most important thing is to now pay close attention to how the Government has learnt from their mistakes as we move out of the pandemic and hopefully back into regular life. Otherwise, the most effective way to bring about the necessary change remains the same, on the streets and by the ballot box.
Image - Flickr (Number 10)