Sarah Ingham: The Government’s Covid response could soon look like the biggest public policy disaster in Britain’s history

21 Jan

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

The reckoning begins.

As Plan B restrictions expire, the pandemic becomes endemic and the perceived threat from the virus diminishes, the public is beginning to awaken to the possibility that much of the Government response to Covid-19 over the past two years has been sub-optimal. By the time of the next General Election, it could look like the biggest public policy disaster in Britain’s history.

In the past few weeks, with the emergence of Tales of the Unexpected Frat House in Downing Street, that “cockpit of the emergency crisis response” (©Dominic Raab), the electorate has become increasingly baffled. After all, since March 2020, the Government has repeatedly reinforced the impression that this new Made in China Coronavirus is the 21st century Black Death.

As they learn that a wine suitcase is the latest must-have accessory in Whitehall, confused constituents are left puzzling whether anyone working at No10 bothered to heed the macabre warning “Don’t Kill Your Gran”. And if not, why not?

Before too long, the penny – or rather the £37 billion wasted on Test and Trace – is going to drop that, just as the Omicron variant seems more akin to Cold-22 than Ebola, perhaps for the vast majority of the public, but especially for those under 30, the threat from Covid-19 was overblown.

While the public is always supportive of a government at a time of national emergency, it is none too appreciative when it realises it has been misled, not least thanks to dodgy data.

Back in February 2003, perhaps one million people marched through central London to stop the war against Iraq. They were accused of appeasement, of siding with the dictator

Saddam Hussein, of ignoring the threat that Britain was 45 minutes from attack by Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction. These surrender monkeys were the Covidiots of their day.

To underscore the peril facing us, the Blair government ordered tanks to be parked at Heathrow Airport and dossiers of evidence to be published. Military action against Iraq, the Prime Minister assured the nation, was justified in order to uphold successive UN Security Council Resolutions which Baghdad had breached.

This was a Baghdad which, he claimed, might possess warheads armed with Anthrax, might have nuclear weapons capability, and might have associations with terrorist groups. The PM avoided mentioning al-Qaeda, but by invoking 9/11, he wanted the public to join the dots.

With the backing of the Duncan-Smith-led Conservatives, Blair easily won the Parliamentary vote to go to war. As part of the US-led Coalition of the Willing, British Service personnel went into action two days later.

“They may ring their bells now; before long they will be wringing their hands.” On the eve of war with Spain in 1739, Prime Minister Robert Walpole was sceptical about future support for the conflict. The “rally around the flag” effect characterises the beginning of every war. After all, with service personnel being about to put their lives on the line for their country, the least the civilian public can do is support them. Overcoming their reservations, the majority of the public backed the Labour government’s war of choice in Iraq – until they didn’t.

By May 2003, Saddam had been overthrown and President George W Bush declared mission accomplished. This was somewhat premature, as it would be six years before British combat operations in Iraq ended. By then, back home, support for the war had long evaporated. In March 2007 a BBC/ICM survey found that 60 per cent thought the intervention a mistake. We heard less shrieking about surrender monkeys and more demands that soon-to-be-former Prime Minister Blair be put on trial in the Hague for war crimes.

Iraq casts a long shadow. A humanitarian disaster for Iraqis, it destabilised the Middle East, polarised Britain and led to a schism within the Labour Party. Hostility towards Tony Blair continues, reflected by the reaction to his Knighthood of the Garter. The intervention had a disastrous impact on trust between the elected and the electorate.

Back in 2003 few people could imagine their government was not being entirely straight with them about going to war, which cost the lives of 179 British Service personnel and severely injured others. Today, at present, voters are similarly reluctant to imagine that the government-imposed restrictions on their lives, livelihoods and liberties were generally pointless and performative.

“We are all in this to gather.” Did mocking the locked-down public add to the revelry of the No10 revelries? When the architect of the Covid restrictions, Kate Josephs, held a leaving do, did she and her senior civil servant colleagues raise a toast to the gullibility of men and women whose businesses were being destroyed?

Whoever leads the Conservatives needs to anticipate that before too long, the public will decide that locking Britain down was wrong, that the collateral damage was too great.

To avoid any replay of the Iraq-induced damage done to Labour, in the context of the Covid response, Conservatives should be thinking ahead and taking the initiative. Voters will not welcome being told that, Sue Gray-style, they should wait for the result of Baroness Hallett’s Inquiry into the Government’s handling of the pandemic.

On Tuesday in a Westminster Hall debate, Bob Seely drew attention to scientists’ risible modelling of the pandemic, in which, for some reason best known to themselves, ministers placed such faith.

Perhaps one of Seely’s colleagues could find out who, during a cost-of-living crisis, thought it politically astute to write off £4.3 billion of fraudulent furlough claims and bounce back loans? Do Conservatives really want to be tainted by those less-than-fragrant contracts for PPE?

David Kelly, no WMD, a country engulfed in anarchy, the legitimacy and legality of the war called into question … The drip, drip, drip of Iraq-related stories eventually eroded public support for the conflict – and ended not just Blair’s career but terminally undermined New Labour.

In comparison with what happened in Iraq, Downing Street parties are piffling. They might yet, however, cost the Prime Minister his job. They also highlight the nascent scepticism about the government’s pandemic response which, unless honestly confronted, will inflict long-term damage on the Conservative Party.