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The Covid Inquiry Has Already Failed Us

True justice for the victims of the pandemic won’t come from the excuses and apologies offered by politicians before the Covid Inquiry. It will come from ending the unjust political system they uphold.

A woman leaves a message on the Covid Memorial Wall below photos of some of those who died during the pandemic. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

In May 2021, former prime minister Boris Johnson announced a public inquiry into the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, to be chaired by Baroness Hallett, a crossbench peer and retired former judge. Work for the inquiry began in the spring of 2022, and the first public hearings took place earlier this year. 

The inquiry has been split into ‘active’ and ‘future’ modules. There are currently four active modules: resilience and preparedness, core UK decision-making and political governance, the impact of Covid-19 pandemic on healthcare systems in the four nations of the UK, and vaccines and therapeutics. Future modules will focus on government procurement, the care sector, and systemic issues, including health inequalities, and the impact of Covid. 

Judging by this thorough approach, one might believe that Britain’s political class was genuinely committed to examining its own failings and ensuring the mistakes of 2020 and the years that have followed never happen again. In truth, however, the inquiry was only commissioned due to determined campaigning from Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice and others, who spent more than a year pushing for a full and independent investigation into the events that claimed thousands of lives and disabled members of the population en masse. The necessity for the campaigners to exert this pressure set the tone for what we can expect from the inquiry itself: not genuine transparency and accountability, but a negotiation between a public looking for truth and justice, and an establishment with something to hide.

Dodging Accountability

Many members of the public are intimately familiar with the political decisions that contributed to avoidable suffering and death at the height of Covid: health workers being sent onto the frontline without adequate PPE, billions wasted procuring and storing masks and aprons that would later be unusable, money funnelled into the pockets of those with personal connections to the Conservative Party and dished out to private companies for unusable test-and-trace systems

Despite all that, the politicians who had the power to act either during or before the pandemic have largely used their inquiry appearances to attempt to wriggle out of accountability. Former health secretary Matt Hancock attempted to shift the blame onto local councils, civil servants, and the World Health Organisation, even though it was his decision to abolish the national public health body, Public Health England (PHE), six months into Covid. This was further intensified by the unlawful policy greenlit by Hancock to discharge vulnerable patients into care homes to free up hospital beds, contributing to the death of 20,000 care home residents in England from Covid in 2020. 

Former chancellor of the exchequer George Osbourne delusionally rejected that his austerity measures had weakened our public health infrastructure in the decade preceding the pandemic, despite the opposite conclusions being drawn by civil servants, public health officials, and local authorities. Boris Johnson then claimed he was unable to provide WhatsApp messages because he had ‘forgotten’ the passcode to his phone, and failed to hand over other key documents including notebooks and diaries from this time period.

The final kick in the public’s teeth was hearing similar excuses fall from the mouth of current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer at the pandemic’s height, who also seems to have lost WhatsApp messages exchanged in 2020, and who then went on to defend his ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme, which was rolled up prematurely after contributing to a surge in cases that summer. 

Perhaps the core insult that one experiences while watching these figures prevaricate is realising how little they seem to recall — or claim they can recall — of the life-altering decisions they made during Covid. It’s a luxury many of us do not have: to forget everything and everyone lost as a result.

However, as the inquiry unfolds, it is becoming ever clearer that it will not get at the core of the way the pandemic has been handled. That’s because that mishandling goes deeper than the ineptitude and selfishness of a few individuals: it’s about the state of our entire political and economic system. 

A Record of Failure

This, perhaps more than any secret parties, is what our political class hopes to stop us from noticing — that faced with the choice between the safety and wellbeing of the public and the interests of capital, one tends to win. 

The government’s approach to the pandemic was an example of this hierarchy in action. It was evident in the failure to prepare in the preceding years, even after a 2004 report warned of the global risk of coronaviruses: crumbling healthcare, social care, and welfare systems after thirteen years of austerity policies that stripped money from public services while private coffers expanded. It is evident in the limits placed on who has the right to state support for protection and self-isolation, and how much. One glaring example was the careful protective measures put in place for the World Economic Forum in Davos this January, while the elites and politicians in attendance continue to downplay the threat of Covid and deny comparable protection to everyone else. It was also evident in the length, timings and specifics of the lockdowns, in the failures of provisions for disabled and immunocompromised people — contributing to a reported 1.9 million with long Covid — in the pitiful sick pay or regulations for the protection of health and care workers, in the furlough scheme that left many struggling to get by on 80 percent of minimum wage for months. 

Black and Asian people had a higher risk of death from Covid than white people in the first and second waves of the pandemic. To understand these inequalities, too, it is vital to examine who was on our frontlines in 2020 and why, and who was the least insulated from the effects of the pandemic, and why. After initially suggesting these kinds of inequalities would not be included in the scope of the inquiry, they are now expected to be examined in a future module. 

Examination, however, is not the same as action, and in compelling action the limits of the inquiry system is well-known. The Iraq Inquiry failed to change Britain’s neocolonial approach to foreign policy. The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry left the Metropolitan Police’s institutional racism in place. The Grenfell Inquiry is unlikely to alter the nation’s housing or cladding crises. The only way to ensure the Covid-19 inquiry doesn’t make the same mistake — to ensure that it brings about real accountability and real justice — would be to guarantee its conclusions will be accompanied with root-and-branch social, political, and economic change.

Real Change

Government figures state that more than 233,554 lives have been lost to Covid in the UK, and the real figure could be much higher. The pandemic is ongoing, but no state protections remain and individuals are expected to pay to keep themselves and others safe. After promising a ‘new normal’ throughout 2020, the country’s political actors have reverted almost instantly to type. 

Both major parties are hammering lines about fiscal responsibility while the nation’s public services literally crumble. Both major parties refuse to undo the Thatcherite trade union laws that have prevented workers from winning the improvements in pay and conditions that could have helped keep them safe during Covid, and could save lives in future pandemics. All the while, the possibility of those future pandemics grows bigger with the help of climate change, and we remain terrifyingly unprepared.

The efforts of campaigners, workers, and bereaved families show some of the steps we ought to take. The Black Frontline Project is gathering oral histories from healthcare workers about their experience of Covid-19, aiming to give their experiences a voice. Keep Our NHS Public and We Own It are demanding the removal of private interests from the nation’s healthcare services. Disabled People Against Cuts continue to campaign for a reversal of the austerity that decimated the welfare system and its protections for disabled people. Trade unionists working in the medical sector and beyond highlight the harm caused by outsourcing and the importance of pay and conditions that give workers security. 

All these demands are real examples of what justice after the pandemic should look like. True accountability is not just the set of half-baked apologies we are getting from certain politicians: true accountability is change to the unjust political system they uphold. What we need instead is a more equal society that prioritises people before profit, and pursues material improvements to normal people’s lives with the true intention of making sure the mistakes of Covid never happen again. 

Unfortunately, that’s not something an inquiry will deliver. It’s something we have to fight for.