By Tony O’Sullivan, co-chair KONP
The report into the handling of the coronavirus pandemic was published on Wednesday 1 December, two years on from the emergence of the novel virus and COVID-19, the deadly disease that has killed over 5.2 million people – 167,000 of them in Britain. Keep Our NHS Public organised the inquiry which has filled the deafening silence from Government.
The Prime Minister had steadfastly refused to organise an inquiry even when it was obvious to all that a rapid-learning inquiry was needed to save lives and halt the tragic repetition of government mistakes and misjudgements.
In the absence of a formal public inquiry into the pandemic, The People’s Covid Inquiry began in February 2021 and concluded its hearings in the summer.
The purpose was in the title: ‘Learn lessons – save lives’. It covered all aspects of the Government’s handling of the pandemic and heard testimony from a wide range of individuals and organisations.
These included previous government advisors and key academics, as well as frontline workers and bereaved family members.
The Inquiry was chaired by world renowned human rights barrister Michael Mansfield QC who, together with a panel of experts, has now delivered their findings and recommendations on all main aspects of the pandemic to date:
“This Inquiry performed a much-needed and urgent public service when the nation was hit by a catastrophic pandemic coincident with an unprecedented period of democratic deficiency.
“It afforded an opportunity for the beleaguered citizen to be heard; for the victims to be addressed; for the frontline workers to be recognised; and for independent experts to be respected.
“When it mattered most and when lives could have been saved, the various postures adopted by government could not sustain scrutiny.”
The findings are damning – the recommendations are urgent and potentially life-saving. But the reasons behind why the 6th richest nation in the world, with a proud NHS and public health reputation, has the 27th worst death rate of 190 nations and the worst economic impact of the OECD countries are shocking.
The joint Health & Social Care and Science & Technology Commons Select Committees’ report in October declared the handling of coronavirus to be the worst public health failure. Our report exposes the failings of the UK response to be the worst political failure. There is a case to answer of gross negligence and misconduct in public office.
In his damning assessment of the Government’s pandemic handling, Michael Mansfield argued the case for the charge of ‘misconduct in a public office’ by government ministers:
“This People’s Covid Inquiry report is unequivocal – [there has been a] dismal failure in the face of manifestly obvious risks … It was plain to …[the organisers of the Inquiry] that Government words were bloated hot air, hoping to delay and obfuscate. Within this narrative lies a theme of behaviour amounting to gross negligence by the Government, whether examined singularly or collectively. There were lives lost and lives devastated, which was foreseeable and preventable. From lack of preparation and coherent policy, unconscionable delay, through to preferred and wasteful procurement, to ministers themselves breaking the rules, the misconduct is earth-shattering.”
The Inquiry heard the sadness and the questions from bereaved families demanding justice.
It heard the pride of NHS, care and other frontline staff and we heard about their pain, exhaustion and their moral injury.
The Panel listened to vital expert testimony on failings in public health, on workplace safety, on the impact of inequalities, on the running down of the NHS.
There was disastrous policy and behaviour in public office at every stage.
Pre-pandemic, 10 years of austerity policy left the NHS exposed and social care in danger of collapse. Pandemic planning exercises, including Exercise Alice in 2016 based on a coronavirus pandemic, gave clear warnings which were ignored – on exactly the dangers exposed: insufficient stocks and qualities of PPE, insufficient hospital beds, ventilators and staff, a lack of capacity and data systems to test, contact trace and isolate, and to regulate borders.
Government responses to the pandemic spread, despite the experience of China in December -January and Italy in February-March 2020, were unforgivably delayed. The 2-3 week delay before lockdown in the UK when cases were doubling every 3-4 days caused at least 20-30,000 avoidable deaths. Two further lockdowns were delayed in the face of scientists’ urging action and a tens more thousands of deaths resulted in January-March 2021.
Running through this whole time from pre-pandemic to initial response and across three lockdowns has been the refusal to accept WHO basic public health policy: ‘test, test, test’; ‘go hard go early’; the essential need for rigorous case finding, testing and tracing, isolation and quarantine with support for those who need it. Never has our Government put this FTTIS system in place.
The heightened inequalities of the past decade led to brutally discriminate impact on the low-paid, unemployed, women, disabled people (six in every 10 deaths) and on Black, Asian and ethnically diverse communities. People in multi-generational households, more crowded accommodation, working zero-hours and low-paid jobs all were exceptionally at risk.
We learned to redefine the meaning of ‘key worker’ as frontline staff across sectors went to work unprotected by PPE or any semblance of Health & Safety Executive activity. 1500 health and care workers died. In London alone, dozens of bus drivers died.
It was unions like the GMB, NEU and ASLEF who were actively protecting their members at work, not Government, not employers. The inquiry heard how employers let down their staff exposing them to avoidable risk.
Public servants were ignored across the NHS, public health, primary care, care homes, local authorities and schools. Teachers were accused of not caring for children when staff demanded safety in schools. Government redefined and downgraded PPE requirements when supplies were running out, to avoid being accused of breaching employees’ safety, and blamed NHS and care staff for abusing PPE.
Private contracting was the preferred route to procure supplies and services, from NHS Test and Trace at a cost of £37 billion wasted (run by Serco, Sitel and Deloitte) to setting up private, often unaccredited laboratories, instead of urgently boosting NHS capacity.
The private hospital sector’s costs were underwritten and no more than 30% of their capacity was used. The level of government cronyism and resultant profiteering has been blatant and in plain sight.
Breach of public trust
The Government had no time for a public inquiry but time to rearrange the NHS mid-pandemic, with its dangerous Health and Care Bill. Government treated bereaved families with disrespect and ignored their questions for over a year.
If and when the Government’s judicial-led public inquiry convenes (no chair or terms of reference at the time of writing), Jo Goodman, Co-Founder of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice (who contributed to the Inquiry) argues:
“It’s vital that bereaved families are at the heart of the forthcoming inquiry and listened to at every turn, and this report evidences exactly why. The loss of our loved ones should be used to learn lessons and save lives – something the Government should be entirely focused on and dedicated to.”
Lessons to save lives
The Inquiry set out to learn the lessons that could save lives in this and future pandemics. The Panel has been shocked at the avoidable loss of tens of thousands of lives through the neglect of pandemic planning, the run-down of the NHS, and the intense inequality in this country and the wider impact this has had.
All this has left the NHS and Care sectors at existential risk of collapse. Equally shocking has been the breach of all the Nolan Principles of behaviour in public office, including lack of candour, honesty and integrity.
The overall conclusion of the Inquiry is that there has been misconduct in public office. This has to be addressed: if it is ignored, the country cannot learn the lessons from today to face the challenges of tomorrow.
If the NHS, Care and support services and inequalities are not addressed the future for the population is bleak. Keep Our NHS Public believes that these findings are an important contribution to what must change and change now.
The report will be submitted to government and the future public inquiry in the hope that its contents may help inform future policy.
n Watch the report launch here: https://youtu.be/S56rrfgFWFg
n Download the report at https://www.peoplescovidinquiry.com/
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