Boris Johnson visit's SureScreen Diagnostics in Derby during lockdown, 2021. Boris Johnson visit's SureScreen Diagnostics in Derby during lockdown, 2021. Photo: Andrew Parsons / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED

The secret lecturer gives a teacher’s perspective on what we’ve learnt from the Covid Inquiry

As we enter another Christmas holiday period, it is worth thinking back to the fact that the ghosts of Christmas past lockdowns still haunt us. The so-called ‘Freedom Day’ in the UK on 19 July 2021 saw the United Kingdom move ahead with the new part of its strategy, ‘Living with Covid’. The virus now circulates freely among the population, and the language of self-isolation and R numbers has dropped out of the popular lexicon.

The wounds and traumas created by Covid remain. There were over 1.1m hospital admissions between March 2020 and 5 May 2023 with Covid, while more than 231,000 people died. The figures for deaths per hundred thousand of the population placed the United Kingdom in the middle of the pack of countries, which is of no consolation to anyone who suffered. The pain for the families of the bereaved is still raw, totally understandable, and will form permanent scar tissue. There is then the estimated two million people living with chronic long Covid, struggling to get effective diagnosis and treatment in an NHS decimated by the underfunding driven by austerity.

Beyond health, the wounds in the economy remain with the slow death of the high street and the disproportionate impact across society. In 2021, over 2.7m person years of full-time work and a further 1.5m person years of part-time work had been lost, with all the impact on skills development and future earnings. This is equivalent to 14% of the workforce not working for a year, but the impact hits those with lower educational attainment the most, with the equivalent of 24% of workers from these groups not working for a year. The number of apprenticeships fell substantially, while remote working placed a wage premium on those who could work without social contact and with the necessary digital-technology skills. There was and is no consideration of how to rectify these inequalities.

In education, lockdowns saw large learning losses again distributed unevenly. During lockdown, 74% of private-school students were benefitting from full school days in comparison to only 38% of state-school students. The number of school absences has also substantially increased with nearly a quarter of students missing at least ten half days in 2021/2022 and, in total, 6.9% of all lessons were missed. The impact of this will play out long into the future of these children, while the Tories waved indifferently at the problem with the weak gruel of the Covid recovery scheme, which was so poorly funded that education groups have warned it will wither and die.

The UK COVID-19 Inquiry

The UK COVID-19 Inquiry has been established, and currently the Inquiry is investigating core UK decision-making and political governance. This has seen some of the big beasts of politics taken to task in recent weeks, such as Cummings and Hancock with Boris Johnson about to give his evidence. The Inquiry will examine the UK’s response to and impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and learn lessons for the future.

What have we learned so far?

We do know that the World Health Organisation stated that Covid was a public-health emergency on 30 January 2020, yet the UK did not lockdown until the 23 March 2020, even after seeing the evidence from Italy, a country which Johnson mocked for its performance with his breezy confidence that he would do far better. Worse, Johnson did not attend any meetings on Covid between 14 and 24 February, as he was alleged to have been hidden away at Chevening, struggling over his biography of Shakespeare. The lack of urgency during this period led to a late lockdown, a grave mistake, according to both Hancock and Cummings, that cost lives. Worse still, the same mistake with a late lockdown during the second wave showed nothing had been learnt.

We also heard all sorts of extraordinary quotations from the hearing. Lee Cain, Johnson’s Director of Communications at the time, alleges the latter did not think Covid was a big deal, and the biggest issue was talking the UK economy into a slump. Patrick Vallance alleges Johnson saw Covid as ‘nature’s way of dealing with old people’ and was completely ‘bamboozled’ by the scientific advice. We also have the stories around ‘Eat Out to Help Out’, where Sunak tried to sell the story that saving the economy was more important than saving lives, and saw a rise of around 11% in new Covid cases in August and September 2020. This cost lives, and contributed to the need for another lockdown, the economic impacts of which far outstripped any economic gains made during the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme.

There was also the case of the massive wasting of public money. The VIP Lane to award contracts for PPE was ruled by the courts to be unlawful, and saw huge contracts being handed out to companies with no history of producing PPE. This saw shoddy materials being provided at the most important time, whilst politically connected companies pocketed huge profits, showing the power of self-interest over the collective good. The list goes on with the government writing off £4.3bn of fraudulent Covid loans. Then there was the muddled and eye wateringly expensive Test and Trace programme involving 35 companies, many of which had little to no experience in the relevant field.

Edward Lister, a senior aide to Johnson, stated that Johnson had said ‘let the bodies pile high’, rather than impose another lockdown in September 2020. This may be dismissed as hyperbole by Johnson and his defenders, but speaks to the heart of the Tories’ understanding of the world. Finally, and perhaps most bizarrely, Lister also claims Johnson wanted to be injected with the virus live on TV to show it was not dangerous, in a story that is perhaps even too deranged for Black Mirror to contemplate.

The weeks so far have uncovered the lurid language used at the top of politics, the misogyny and bullying culture that dominated the highest levels of decision making, and the total lack of empathy with the very people on behalf of whom they were supposed to working. Much of the evidence given by leading figures, such as Hancock, has been about reputation management and flinging mud at others to pass the buck. There has been an almost total lack of introspection, and much of the evidence has all the elements of the grubbiness we have come to associate with Johnson and his disciples.

Is it the Johnson show?

Guto Harri, a Johnson acolyte and employee, argued that this inquiry should not just been about pinning blame on Johnson, as there is no lesson to be learnt there, as he is not now the PM nor will be again. It is rare to be able to agree with Harri, but in this case he was right. This is not just about Boris Johnson, but the whole political class and the system of governance of the UK. Although we should note the caveat that those closest to Johnson knew he was the wrong person for the job from the outset, but were willing to back him to further their own interests.

The bottom line is that our class-based system has produced an elite whose expensive but shallow education has blessed with a completely undeserved sense of self confidence. Their private schooling and Oxbridge minds give them a slickness in public performance, but they are empty of logic, empathy, and critical evaluation. Their golden lives meant that their ability to understand even the basics of the science, or the impacts of the virus and lockdowns on the population was so limited that they had no chance of governing effectively. As a result, they got the big calls wrong, wrong on the protective ring around care homes, wrong on asymptomatic transmission, wrong on the dates of the lockdown. The real problem is that this was an outcome that we could see coming, but were always powerless to stop.

Lessons for the future

As the Inquiry progresses, we need to think about what lessons can be learnt for the future. Humanity increasingly interferes in the natural world due to capitalism’s endless thirst for profit, and with the rise of climate change, we will face more pandemics. It is not enough to say the lesson is don’t elect Boris Johnson to be Prime Minister. We need to look at the crippling effects of austerity under the ideology of Cameron and Osborne on our social fabric, the NHS and education. We need to look at the failures to plan for a pandemic, particularly under the stewardship of Jeremy Hunt, by building resilience in the NHS. And we need to ask, how do we ensure that Britain is not governed by such a narrow elite that is so cut off from the lives of ordinary people that it is unable to govern in their interests?

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