30 July 2020
The Covid Inquiry
What it means.
By John Watson
Admitting to an important error in politics is like leaving a blood trace in a shark-infested pool. The pack will never let go of it until they have exhausted its potential to weaken and destroy. Just remember what happened to Gordon Brown when he apologised, wholly unnecessarily, for referring to an elector as a bigot in the 2010 election campaign. His enemies in the press never forgot it and used it to drown out far more important messages.
That is why Mr Johnston’s admission that the covid virus might have been handled differently is so carefully couched – an admission that there are “very open questions” about whether the lockdown was brought in too late. Another that in formulating their strategy the government missed the significance of asymptotic carriers. If he had simply said that he had made a mistake by not locking down earlier he would have been pursued by endless questions on how many people had died, who they were and whether he is going to apologise to their partners personally. Until we have seen the enquiry’s report we will not know how the scientific advice moved but you can see why Mr Johnson is not willing to say very much until the position is properly established. For the moment that leaves something of a void.
Influential as Shaw Sheet is, it does not get a preview of reports before the body issuing them has even been constituted, so at this stage the most we can do is to make some guesses at a general level as to what went wrong and what that means for the future of the government.
Let’s go back to the Conservative election victory last year. They centred their pitch, and no doubt set their hearts, on the achievement of two main broad objectives. The first was to force Brexit through, preferably with, but if necessary without, a deal. Whether that was a good idea may be debatable but either way it seems likely that they will redeem this pledge at the end of the year. The second was to revolutionise our infrastructure and revive the north: new railways, superfast broadband and all the rest of it. These promises went to the heart of their mandate and one would assume that when the new cabinet assembled there was much debate on how to deliver them.
The pandemic arrived from left field. At first it must have seemed an annoying distraction from the projects on which government was focussed and, whatever the interaction between scientific advice and political decision-making turns out to be, they probably expected and hoped it would go away. No doubt there was some wishful thinking behind the judgement calls (well, there would be, wouldn’t there?) but there was experience too. After all, SARS was contained in 2003 with less than 1000 deaths worldwide. Perhaps the right thing was to get everyone to wash their hands and not to allow too much distraction from the main political agenda. As it turned out, that was not enough at all, something which the government did not recognise until the statistics commissioned from Imperial became available. The failure to move earlier has cost many lives.
As most of us know from our own experiences it is a rare institution indeed where mistakes are never made and that goes for political parties, governments and scientific advisers every bit as much as it goes for other organisations. The difference is that for most of us the mistakes do not cost lives or, where they do, being away from the limelight, they do not hit the headlines. But there are roles, those of a politician or a senior civil servant dealing with a pandemic, say, or a general planning a campaign or the manager of a nuclear power plant, where mistakes can give rise to very public suffering and disaster. If history tells us nothing else, it makes it clear that the seriousness of the consequences does not prevent mistakes occurring.
Whatever any enquiry ultimately says about how many lives could have been saved and whose fault it was that they were not, I have no doubt that the Prime Minister, Mr Hancock and the scientific advisers too, have sleepless nights wishing that they had seen more clearly, had moved more firmly or in some other way acted more wisely. Of course they do. They should remember, however, that blame laid at their door is a consequence of taking heavy responsibilities just as much as it is for not being infallible. Since at the time I agreed with their approach to lockdown I would not want to cast the first stone.
But that is not the only place where the government’s record has come in for criticism. The gradual relaxation of lockdown has been hesitant and there is much criticism both of the substance of the rule changes and of the guidance. The odd thing about the former is that the pressures come from many different angles like a political version of Brownian motion with the government sitting in the middle. In some cases that is a result of competing interests. Those wishing to go on holiday are keen to relax quarantine. Operators of pubs are anxious to get them open; and yet if each relaxation adds a bit to R, one may only be able to allow one of them, with a wave of abuse from those who are disappointed. Throw in a bunch of uncertainties. To what extent do children carry the disease? What social distance is necessary on a beach? Do masks help? And it is no wonder that the government’s announcements reflect its uncertainty. After all, the original firm line that reliance could be placed on herd immunity turned out to be wrong. No wonder that they are proceeding slowly by trial and error and that that uncertainty comes across as a lack of decisive leadership.
A third strand of criticism is more personal. “Mr Johnson is just not the right leader for this sort of situation” is one refrain you hear from even quite serious commentators. In one sense it is probably right. His focus has always been on the sweep of social change rather than administration, and the inch by inch management of pandemic is probably not something for which he is particularly well qualified. Had Jeremy Hunt, with his long experience as Secretary of State for Health, been prime minister he might perhaps have handled it better. Whether that is the case, it is in a sense beside the point because a prime minister has to deal with all the major issues facing the nation and will inevitably be better at some of them than others. The electorate chose Mr Johnson largely because of his vision for the regions and also because he would get Brexit done. He could be the right man for that but not the best man for handling a pandemic. Mr Hunt might have been good at the pandemic but less good at the regions. Who knows? You cannot have a separate prime minister for each problem and alas in modern politics prime ministers are expected to take direct responsibility for difficult areas when the chips are down.
So what exactly should the government do? In relation to the pandemic, something of an international consensus seems to be emerging in Europe on how to relax lockdown and following it at least means that one can learn from others’ experiences. But it is important not to let concerns about this difficult task take the focus from the government’s other challenges. Yes, there must be things which they regret. Yes, the public inquiry which has been promised will hang like the sword of Damocles above their heads. But there is nothing they can do about any of that. As to the rest they should take their advice from their coffee mugs: “Keep Calm and Carry On”.