Covid Inquiry focuses on government as stakes rise

by | Oct 2, 2023 | Health

Getty ImagesBy Jim ReedHealth reporterDecisions made by Boris Johnson, his government and his team of scientists in the early days of the pandemic are to come under intense scrutiny as the second part of the Covid inquiry begins.Until Christmas, the spotlight will be on key decisions made to try to control the spread of the virus, from lockdowns to border controls to face masks. But what is at stake for the ex-prime minister and his former team?On 7 March 2020, England beat Wales in front of 82,000 in a Six Nations rugby match at Twickenham. Mr Johnson was in the crowd shaking hands with England captain Owen Farrell.On the same day, newspaper front pages were full of one subject. “Official: It’s an outbreak,” said the Sun. “Millions told: work at home to fight virus,” said the Daily Mail.That weekend, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced a lockdown across the north of the country as Covid cases threatened to overwhelm hospitals.In the UK, where only two deaths had been confirmed, the message was still to wash our hands and carry on – cautiously – with our lives.The next week, horse racing’s Cheltenham Festival went ahead with 250,000 spectators, while 3,000 Atletico Madrid football fans flew to Liverpool for a Champions League match, when Spanish restrictions would have stopped them going to a match at home.Geoff BodmanGeoff Bodman, 59, was at both Twickenham and Cheltenham that spring and is sure he was infected with Covid at one of those events. Later that month he was put on a ventilator at a hospital in Cardiff, followed by two months in intensive care during which he suffered a stroke.”With hindsight, the government should have acted more decisively and put a block on things,” he says.”It would have been disruptive for a lot of people, but lives would have been saved.”The early responseHundreds of articles and books have already been written about the government’s early response to Covid. An investigation by MPs described it as one of the country’s worst public health failures.Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock published his version of what happened, and then had thousands of his WhatsApp messages leaked to the Daily Telegraph. Now though, the Covid-19 public inquiry, led by former judge Baroness Hallett, is opening its own investigation. The first part of the inquiry, examining just the planning for a pandemic, finished hearing witnesses back in July, with a final report due in 2024. This second part looks at the decisions made after Covid emerged with “particular scrutiny” of the period until 23 March 2020 when the UK went into full lockdown.It will ask:could different decisions have saved lives?if the government’s policy of “following the science” was a fair reflection of what really happenedwhether mandatory lockdowns, face masks and border restrictions really were effective in controlling the spread of Covid It will investigate whether the impact on the economy, education and mental health were ever properly considered.”I didn’t see another human being for 18 months, except for when I went to get my jabs,” says James Hollens, who has two types of autoimmune arthritis and a weakened immune system because of the medication he is taking.New research for the charity Versus Arthritis found there was a “sizeable impact” on the mental health of people – like James – who shielded through the pandemic. “We were told to just stay inside and wait for the next news conference,” he adds.”Not once did anyone reach out and check how we were doing mentally or physically.”This part of the inquiry will look at how at-risk groups were identified and the effect of lockdown and social distancing on those individuals. Crucially it will also examine “public confidence” in the government’s policies “including the impact of alleged breaches of rules and standards by ministers, officials and advisers”.What more can we learn?As a public inquiry, Baroness Hallett and her team have specific powers, including the ability to compel witnesses to give evidence under oath, and force the release of documents. That was seen earlier this year when the government lost a legal challenge to prevent the release of ministers’ WhatsApp messages and diaries in full. Expect those texts to form a key part of the questioning, with Mr Johnson, Mr Hancock and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak all likely to give evidence. There is significant potential for this to be embarrassing for the government, as it will shine a light on their decision-making, who did what, and what was said behind closed doors.Another two weeks is set aside to hear from advisers and civil servants, expected to include Dominic Cummings and former cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill.Groups representing the families of some of the 230,000 who lost their lives are worried they may not have a proper chance to have their say. The UK-wide part of this second module runs until Christmas when the inquiry will then move to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to investigate the way they handled Covid.What happens in the end? A public inquiry is not a court case or a criminal trial and there are no sanctions at the end of the process. The chairperson does not have the power to send anyone to prison …

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