The campaign to beat the pandemic

A graphic advertising the People's Covid Inquiry, featuring a picture of a nurse wearing scrubs and protective equipment

Comment The People’s Covid Inquiry: holding Government to account

08 May 2021 / Jacky Davis

Dr Jacky Davis of Keep Our NHS Public (KONP) spoke at our International Meeting last month about the work of Keep Our NHS Public and the People’s Covid Inquiry it set up.

“We truly did everything we could, and continue to do everything we can to minimise loss of life and suffering.” (Boris Johnson, 26 February 2021)

“At the very least the government’s response to Covid-19 might be classified as ‘social murder’.” (BMJ, February 2021)

When Kamran Abbasi wrote those words in the BMJ in February, just five nations were responsible for over half the Covid deaths in the world. The UK, with over 100,000 deaths, was one of them. Abbasi asked whether allowing tens of thousands of deaths in pursuit of “herd immunity” or in the hope of propping up the economy is not premeditated and reckless indifference to human life. If poor decisions, such as delayed lockdowns, lead to excess deaths, who is responsible? Who is to blame when politicians ignore scientific advice, their own pandemic planning, international warnings and indeed history itself? The reckless behaviour of this government, he argues, has led to thousands of unnecessary deaths. Should they be classified as murder?

We started our campaign – Keep Our NHS Public – in 2005 under a Labour government, because we were alarmed about what was happening to the NHS under Tony Blair. We have never been able to stop campaigning since then. The threat of privatisation was joined by the devastation caused by Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care Act and the imposition of “austerity” on public services, with the resulting cuts and closures and staff shortages in the NHS. The NHS is never safe from politicians, but ten years of Tory misrule have been devastating. The need for our campaign has never been greater.

Where was Johnson?

It became clear early on in the pandemic that the government did not have a grip on events. They dithered and delayed, they put off the lockdown until 20 March so that the Cheltenham Festival could take place (it’s no coincidence that Matt Hancock is MP for Newmarket, so close to the racing community). Johnson was AWOL – absent without leave – for weeks during the crucial period. He missed the first five ‘Cobra’ emergency committee meetings, an event almost unknown in previous decades. He was busy finalising his divorce and finishing a book for which he had received an advance of half a million pounds. If he didn’t finish the book by April last year, he would have had to pay back the advance. So rumour has it that he hunkered down to sort out his messy personal life and get the book finished during the critical weeks when he should have been paying attention to the concerns being expressed about the pandemic – when he should have been chairing those Cobra meetings. One might conclude he was guilty of criminal negligence.

When it became apparent that the UK was outstanding only in the number of deaths we were recording, people began calling for a public inquiry. Johnson said, “Now is not the time,” which begs the question – if not now, when? He promised an inquiry at some time in the future, but, given his record, nobody is holding their breath. Meanwhile we have missed opportunities to learn lessons, and history is being rewritten by the government. For instance, we have recently heard Matt Hancock saying that there was never a shortage of PPE. Try telling that to the frontline workers who had none and were improvising with bin bags. And dying as a result.

The People’s Covid Inquiry

KONP decided to set up our own inquiry and The People’s Covid Inquiry is now underway. It consists of several two-hour online sessions, each dedicated to a different aspect of the government’s handling of the pandemic. The sessions are being conducted by Michael Mansfield QC, and consist of evidence from a mixture of experts, frontline workers and patients. We have heard, for example, from Professor Sir Michael Marmot, famous for his work on the social determinants of health, and Professor Sir David King, who set up Independent SAGE, and Bereaved Families for Justice, to name just a few. So far, we are the only inquiry of any kind looking into the government’s response to the pandemic, and people have been queuing up to give evidence, sure in the knowledge that the government will never allow such an inquiry, as the findings would be too embarrassing for them.

Our first session asked, how well prepared was the NHS?

The answer, not surprisingly, was – not well at all.

The government had ignored its own exercise (Cygnus, 2016) on pandemic preparedness, which showed that we didn’t have enough of anything, including PPE and ventilators.

The NHS went into the pandemic short of 100,000 NHS staff and 120,000 care staff.

The government had not only run down staffing numbers but also NHS beds, in particular ITU beds. They sprang into action, spending millions on ‘Nightingale’ hospitals to accommodate the anticipated acutely ill patients but could never use them because they had forgotten that hospitals aren’t just beds but the skilled people to staff them, in particular trained ITU staff. The Nightingale hospitals became an expensive white elephant.

Session two asked, how did the government respond?

Slowly and inconsistently.

Lockdowns were too slow. Advice was confusing – for instance advice about PPE changed over 40 times to fit the PPE that was available, or more likely not available

Patients were told to contact NHS 111 rather than their GP, with the result that some people died at home without ever seeing a doctor.

Elderly patients were discharged from hospital to free up beds and sent back to care homes without being tested. Far from Hancock’s boast about putting a ring around care homes, they sent elderly patients with Covid back into an environment full of vulnerable people and staff with no PPE

Session three asked, did they adopt the right strategy?

There was initial talk of herd immunity, which would have meant hundreds of thousands of deaths, mostly the elderly and those with co-morbidities.

The advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO) was very clear on basic public health measures. Test, trace and isolate (T&T) has been at the heart of successful containment of the virus in other countries. As I’m sure you know, T&T has been a shambles here. Instead of calling on over 40 Public Health labs around the country and using local communities to run T&T, the government brought in the private sector, including Serco, and centralised the process. A much-vaunted phone app never worked. Seven hundred and fifty thousand people who volunteered to help and who could have run local T&T schemes were never even contacted. Contrast that with the successful vaccine roll-out after the NHS was brought in.

We heard from a leading public health expert in New Zealand about how they managed. They looked at successes in other countries, in particular South-East Asian countries which had experience with SARS, and copied them. A tight early initial lockdown, a vigorous T&T programme and control of local outbreaks meant that they have lived an essentially zero Covid life for the last year, with little or no ill effects on education or their economy. And contrast their 27 Covid deaths with our 127,000.

Session four asked, what was the effect on frontline workers?

They felt unsafe and unsupported.

There was a shocking lack of PPE, and of testing.

There was a lack of financial support for low-wage frontline workers, which meant many felt they could not afford to self-isolate.

Many felt the effects of moral injury, because they were not able to deliver a safe service. They had all the responsibility but no power over their working conditions.

Meanwhile, because of staff and bed shortages, thousands of non-Covid patients were dying at home, or seeing treatable illness become untreatable illness.

One tube driver who gave witness talked about their struggle to create a safe working environment for themselves and said, “The government was trying to do this on a wing and a prayer. We were doing the praying while they were winging it.”

I haven’t got time to go into most of the evidence we have heard, including the failure to protect BAME workers when it became apparent that they were particularly at risk, the easing up of lockdowns in response to bullish Tory MPs and much else that has come up. The combined weight of these testimonies, given while memories are fresh, is damning. Perhaps the most damning of all was a statement from one of our expert witnesses that tens of thousands of lives have been lost unnecessarily.

So the answer to the original question – was this social murder? – must be yes. Tens of thousands have died unnecessarily as a result of government negligence and mismanagement. We have heard from expert witnesses that it is not too late to change strategy but there is no sign of this happening. The question for us all to answer is – how do we hold the politicians to account for this crime against humanity and how do we build a better society afterwards?

All the sessions of the People’s Covid Inquiry can be watch here.

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