The Coronavirus inquiry. I’m an outlier – but I believe that following public opinion was a problem.

15 Mar

Coronavirus has disappeared from the headlines recently. The lifting of restrictions, the horrifying news from Ukraine, and our instinctive desire to quickly forget the dreadful means there is now a collective effort to never mention the dreaded C-word again.

But March 26th will mark the unhappy second anniversary of Britain entering lockdown: the biggest state-mandated change to our lives since the Second World War. With the terms of the Government’s inquiry into its handling of the pandemic announced last week, this is an opportunity to ask the fundamental question: was it all worth it?

The inquiry hopes to do this. The proposed terms of reference suggest that it shall assess all aspects of the government’s response: preparedness, the efficacy of interventions, the management of hospitals and care homes, the provision of essential equipment, and economic support. Under Baroness Hallett, the Chairwoman – a former High Court judge – it is hoped the inquiry will “reflect the importance of understanding the experiences of those most affected by the pandemic” and identify where the government got it wrong.

Like all inquiries, this will be a welcome opportunity for acts of confession and self-justification on the parts of ministers. That at least one Cabinet member has been keeping a diary for the last two years is unsurprising. This is a chance for ministers to show public contrition for any shortcomings, whilst aiming to guarantee that the eventual narrative presents them in the best possible light. Plus, Anthony Seldon and Tim Shipman must work from something.

The direct relationship between the size of an inquiry’s remit and the time it takes to conclude means it will be a while before we see Hallett’s final report. Moreover, inquiries tend largely to confirm lessons we have already learnt, providing only slaps on the wrist for politicians who have long since left office. By 2016, for example, we didn’t really need Lord Chilcot to tell us that invading the Middle East on a spurious pre-text was poor form, and that Tony Blair might have a slight messiah complex.

Nevertheless, we can get on with lesson-learning whilst the Baroness finishes dotting her Is and crossing her Ts. A report in the Lancet last week suggested the UK had a lower death toll than Italy, Portugal, and Spain – with no significant differences from those of France and Germany.

By looking at age-standardised avoidable mortality rates, the UK emerged as having the 29th worst mortality rate in Western Europe – largely, commentary suggested, due to our successful vaccine rollout. With cases currently hitting their highest numbers since early February alongside no drastic spike in hospitalisations, we really do appear to have triumphed over Covid.

140 million jabs and no restrictions is an achievement, even if returning to normality took longer than the “three weeks to flatten the curve” we were first promised. But if the vaccine rollout showed the British state at its best, the pandemic has also shown it at its worst. Billions chucked after a largely useless test-and-trace system, arrogant officials who genuinely believed Britain had a world-leading pandemic preparedness plan, and a health service as creaking as it is beloved: all hampered the fight. That tackling the virus was so expensive reflects the British state’s habitual cluelessness.

But surely that’s ancient history – who quibbles about timescales and costs when the pubs are open again? Nevertheless, there are real questions to ask about the fundamental problems of the government’s pandemic response. As a recovering student who spent his last year at university railing against restrictions, I almost respect those in Number 10 who dabbled in cakes and champers: they stuck two fingers up at rules so obviously grotesque even their very authors deemed them unreasonable. Saying such a thing makes me an outlier – but the trouble of following public opinion has been a problem of these last two years.

Think back to that mad, miserable March. The accepted narrative of events follows a government that began by nonchalantly dismissing the approaching threat being bounced by sensible scientists like Patrick Vallance, Chris Whitty, and Saint Ferguson of Lockdown into following the rest of the civilised world (basically European countries with skiing resorts, and those bits of America that like Hillary) into necessary restrictions. Ferguson famously claimed that locking down a weak earlier would have saved 20,000 lives. The allegation that nasty Tories pursued chimeric ‘herd immunity’ at the expense of innocent lives was potent.

The reality was rather different. Rather than rejecting ‘the science’ for political ends, the government studiously followed scientific advice. The crucial point was that that advice changed. Vallance, Whitty et al was began March claiming they wanted to squash the sombrero, that cancelling mass events and mandating face masks was pointless. They may have initially believed the virus was more like the flu, but, even so, the government hardly ignored them. Ferguson was the outlier in calling for restrictions.

What changed? Remember, officials initially openly scoffed at the concept of lockdown. They believed such an authoritarian measure was unworkable in as freedom-loving country such as Britain. Their minds were changed by a force that has done more to shape the government’s handling of this pandemic than any other: the almost-sadomasochistic partiality for restrictions on the part of the British public.

Professor Ferguson’s infamous model certainly had an impact on ministers, primarily because it showed the NHS being overwhelmed. A new Tory government, driven by Vote Leave’s obsession with polls and the health service, could never be seen to let our national religion buckle. As horrific scenes poured onto our television screens from Lombardy night after night, and as country after country entered a lockdown hitherto thought only possible under the CCP, the public mood changed.

Already by March 26th, travel by tube, rail, or bus was down by more than 80 per cent. Outcry at allowing events like the Cheltenham festival and St Patrick’s Day celebrations helped convince the government that Something Must Be DoneTM. We were bounced into lockdown.

And as the weeks drew on, and the public remained overwhelmingly in favour of being paid to sit at home and watch Netflix, removing restrictions became even harder. Not until jabs could be put in arms, providing levels of reassurance acceptable to even the most zealous mask-wearer, could the government finally turn the corner: it had to win against public opinion as much as the virus. We remained stuck under restrictions for so long not only because of the SAGE’s caution, but because the public’s instincts were usually more draconian than the government’s.

We have known since Public Heath England first reported on it in July 2020 that the measures imposed that March may have caused more deaths in the long-term than they saved. From domestic abuse and mental illness, to missed cancer screenings and two years of disrupted learning, the consequences of our national experiment in authoritarianism will still be being counted far beyond the end of even the most leisurely of inquiry timescales.

And as we have all chosen to conveniently forget just how popular the war in Iraq initially was, I suspect that, in years to come, as hospital backlogs and educational problems stack up and mountains of debt must be paid off by continuous tax rises, the British people will similarly choose to forget just how enthusiastic we were for lockdown. March 2020 was the cruellest month – and one day, in the not-too-distant future, none of us will be able to say why.