Almost a year to the day this week since it was announced, the cross-party inquiry of the Heath and Science Committees published their report into the UK’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic so far. There had been speculation ahead of its publication that the report might go easy on the Government. After all, both committees involved are chaired by former ministers including Jeremy Hunt, who was heavily involved in pre-Covid pandemic preparedness planning during his stint as Health Secretary from 2012 to 2018. What we received however was nothing less than damning. The report takes a narrow view, looking only at the public health and scientific response to the pandemic, but still it describes (in scathing terms) how a combination of “groupthink” and “British exceptionalism” led to “one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced” during the crucial first few weeks of the pandemic and a “significantly worse outcome” than our European peers.
The Government comes in for further criticism throughout the report, covering the slow development of a test, trace and isolate system, failure to adequately protect care home residents, and lack of a strategy to tackle long-term health inequalities. Yet there is one key area in which praise is given – you guessed it – the roll out of the vaccines, which was lauded as “one of the most successful and effective initiatives in the history of UK science and public administration.” Predictably this one silver lining has been clung to by ministers doing media rounds this week like a get out of jail free card.
But do they even need to bother? Since its publication on Monday, the report has received very little of the coverage you would expect from something so damning and done nothing to darken the skies that the PM has been so busy painting from his holiday villa. In fact, it seems as though every time a new piece of research or data comes out proving the Government’s actions were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, the public reaction is an even bigger shrug than the last.
The thing is, whilst there are a lot of useful learnings in the report, the main one – that the UK messed up big time – is a surprise to no one. We all saw it with our own eyes and still live with the trauma of it. Whilst those who lost loved ones or who still live with the impact of Covid are rightly angry, most of us just want to move on. Rather than dwell on how badly we handled the last crisis, people want to hear how we’ll get through the many others we now face. “Never mind”, those desperate for something to stick on Johnson will tell you, “this is just the start, the really damning stuff will come out in the public inquiry.” Maybe, but if there is little reaction after a year, there’s not much chance of a big response after five.
Which is a shame, because the more we just expect our leaders to be incompetent and shrug when they prove us right, the lower the pressure on them to learn from their mistakes and get it right next time. As much as we’d all like to draw a line under the pandemic, being in charge during the worst public health failing in history deserves some accountability, especially when, as the report points out, pandemics are only going to be more frequent in the future.