The UK Covid-19 Inquiry has only just got underway, but it is already hitting the headlines. Not only is the government challenging the Inquiry’s Chair’s right to see the former PM’s unredacted notebooks and WhatsApp messages, but it has said that it expects to ‘security check’ witness statements.
In other words, the government will censor anything which it decides “undermines the government’s position”.
Few have ever accused this Tory government of being competent. But it is singularly inept to reveal your plans for a cover-up in advance.
It took years of pressure for the Inquiry to be set up, and then there were long delays while its terms of reference were sorted out. It has a massive agenda and, like most such inquiries, it is expected to take several years.
The Chair has said she aims to conclude public hearings by summer 2026. Delaying it in order to conceal evidence is not just an insult to the bereaved and their families but to every UK resident. Every single one of us has been affected one way or another by Covid-19. We all have a right to know everything about the government’s handling of the pandemic.
It is not just in the UK that questions are being asked.
According to the Guardian, criminal investigations are underway in France, as well as parliamentary enquiries to ascertain whether ministers were prepared, and whether their policy U-turns – such as on masks and lockdowns – reflected evolving scientific knowledge, or political shortcomings.
In Italy, politicians face possible prosecution, with a judicial inquiry focusing on authorities’ alleged failure to save an estimated 4,000 lives in Bergamo by quarantining affected towns earlier, and the absence of an up-to-date national pandemic plan, with the current version dating back to 2006.
A corruption investigation is under way in Bavaria into allegations that some regional conservative politicians earned large sums in commissions on contracts for masks struck by the regional government during the first wave of the pandemic.
In contrast, Sweden’s Covid Commission reported in February 2022 that its broad policy and relaxed attitude to restrictions was “fundamentally correct”.
Here, the People’s Covid Inquiry in 2021 found the government guilty of misconduct in public office.
Which of these will the Inquiry emulate? Will there be prosecutions? Will the 226,278 people who have died get any kind of justice? Or will they be written off as the unavoidable casualties of a government which did its best under difficult circumstances?
There are myriad questions to be answered. The first is: what are they hiding?
Is the revelation before the Inquiry has even started that the government intends to redact texts and documents just clever expectation management so that, when the words concealed by those black lines are inevitably leaked, we don’t dig any deeper and ask what else is there? How many other phones haven’t been handed over? What has been left out of witness statements? Who said what to whom over the phone, on an unrecorded Zoom or Teams call, or at one of those parties which didn’t happen?
And what about the phone Johnson used for most of the pandemic? The one which is conveniently ‘locked’ for ‘security’ reasons, and which requires government techies to unlock?
I don’t expect the Inquiry to question the ideological underpinning of so many of the government’s choices, choices rarely questioned by the Opposition. If your starting point is neoliberalist individualism rather than collectivity, competition rather than mutuality, big business rather than public health, a small state rather than a welfare state, then you are not going to meet the governmental and leadership challenges of a global pandemic.
And while the Inquiry’s modules cover many of the obvious issues – and it will be fascinating to see how some of the more egregious are justified by witnesses such as Cameron and Osborne, Johnson, Hancock, and Sunak – some will inevitably be missed or insufficiently probed.
These are just for starters.
The government spent billions on the pandemic, but too much of it went on lining the pockets of the big supermarkets and the big consultancy and outsourcing firms. Due diligence and fraud controls were ignored when it came to their chums. Those billions did not find their way into the purses and wallets of either those forced to quarantine or shield, or the key public sector workers who risked their lives to care and feed us, and who are now being asked to pay for the pandemic through wage cuts.
Given that the government is now pretending that the pandemic didn’t happen – “don’t mention the virus” – let alone that it is ongoing, we can expect much obfuscation and self-justification from them. However, they are not the only witnesses.
Bereaved families, respected academics and scientists and public health experts will all be giving evidence and we must hope that they bring clarity and truth to what was and is one of the grimmest periods in our lives.
Joan Twelves is a community, trade union and Labour Party activist. She is a member of the Covid Action Steering Committee and a former Leader of Lambeth Council. Originally hosted on Labour Hub, reproduced with permission.