A few years ago, I heard one of the government’s senior scientific advisors discussing a possible pandemic. It was not a question of whether, he said. It was when. I wish I had taken more notice. Then again, what could I have done? What, indeed, could the government have done? Most important of all, we must look to the future. What could be done to prevent, or at least mitigate, future global health crises? Even if the alarming rumours about China prove to be greatly exaggerated, there is every likelihood that we are once again in the realm of when, not whether.

In view of that, it was sensible that the government should hold an inquiry – as long as it has the right remit and the right agenda. At present, this seems to be in doubt. Boris Johnson always makes good copy. Parties and rule-breaking in Downing Street or Chequers can be guaranteed to titillate the readers. This will also enrage some of those who were kept away from dying relatives, unable to bring comfort or receive consolation. More headlines, more emotion.

Yet all that is ultimately irrelevant. How much social distancing took place in the various gardens, who did what to Sue Gray‘s karaoke machine: although Lady Hallett may have to deal with some of that, the vital questions lie elsewhere. We ought to remember one crucial point. History is written backwards but lived forwards. Hindsight may tell us what should have happened. But the decisions had to be taken quickly with limited information. Above all, we did not know how serious Covid would turn out to be. Was this the equivalent of a flu epidemic, which could kill a few thousand people – mainly frail or elderly – in a severe outbreak over the winter? Or were we dealing with Spanish flu, which might kill millions? 
So it is far more important to learn from the past than to salivate over its misdeeds. Obviously, mistakes occurred and should not automatically be excused. It is hard to believe that the decision to empty hospital beds of elderly people could ever have been justified. Even so, everyone ought to remember the pressure of events.

Three issues stand out: procurement, lockdown and medical remedies. In the case of procurement, it is likely that errors were made and money wasted. Yet think of the circumstances. The NHS decides, say, that it needs another million scrubs, right away. It tries to identify manufacturers, and there are two immediate problems. The first is payment. The manufacturers ascertain that the NHS would normally pay in 90 days. The vendors would rather have payment by yesterday, and other customers are happy to oblige.

The second is demand. While the payment arrangements are sorted out, the whole world is in search of Covid-related kit. The orthodox suppliers are overwhelmed so there is a search for alternatives. It turns out that some of those are stronger on promises than on delivery. There are even allegations of corruption. If these are proven, let the prosecuting authorities go to work. But if it is just a matter of a crisis creating chaos, what should one expect? During the early phase of the Second World War, a lot of procurement decisions went awry, money was wasted. 

And there is a further parallel. Some ministers, officials and commanders fell below the level of events. There were similar instances during Covid. Before it began, Matt Hancock was regarded as a promising and rising minister. He was even talked about as a future PM. Then it all went wrong. Under the weight of fraught decisions, he buckled. I am probably alone in feeling a degree of sympathy. There it is.
Lockdown is a desperately complex issue. There are those who believe that it should have been far more drastic: others, who think that we should have followed the Swedish example. Early on, I wrote that the response to Covid should be Cohit: common sense, herd immunity and testing. I wonder. To some extent, Rishi Sunak’s “eat out to help out” initiative was an attempt to lessen the burdens of lockdown. That may have been a mistake. But as a consequence of lockdown, the economy has suffered. “Working at home” is still often a euphemism. University students and schoolchildren have been hard hit. In a lot of cases, there will be lasting damage to their education – and general well-being.

Let us suppose that the lockdown had been less severe. How many more people would have died?
Could anyone come up with a plausible answer? How should additional fatalities be weighed against those who suffered as a consequence of lockdown? When it comes to human life, there is an obvious reluctance to think actuarially. But if such calculations could be made, it would be interesting to see the answers.

Then there is medicine. On vaccination, the British record is good, partly thanks to that not-uncontroversial character, Dominic Cummings. Vaccine was available. But it had not been put through the normal rigours of testing for safety. I am assured that it was Cummings who persuaded the Prime Minister to disregard the doubters and press ahead. If so, Cummings should be forgiven for the odd trip to Barnard Castle. Kate Bingham also played a vital part in the vaccination programme. Another public servant of the highest calibre, she should be recalled to government service. What about tasking her to sort out our universities? That said, she could have a rival. Her husband is Jesse Norman, a man of great ability. He was sacked by Boris Johnson, in the same reshuffle that saw Nadine Dorries promoted. Enough said. That was a PM who could always be relied on to put the “ass” in asinine (using “ass” in either the British or the American sense – or both).

But there are other medical questions. Early on, many of the poor people who live on the pavements of Indian cities were driven out and ordered to return to their native villages. It is not pleasant to think of the sufferings which they would have endured on the journey, probably on foot, with scant sustenance on the way. One might have assumed that this would have unleashed millions of Typhoid Marys upon the Indian countryside. That does not appear to have happened. Why?

Nearer to home, we too have poor people who live on the streets. There is a Roman Catholic priest, Father Alexander Sherbrooke, who provides sustenance and succour to many such persons from his parish, St Patrick’s, Soho Square. (Needless to say, he does not neglect spirituality and faith.) During the lockdown, he tried to follow the rules, and the recipients no doubt complied as well as the inhabitants of No. 10 did. 

But there is a mystery. In the nature of things, many of these homeless people have compromised immune systems: HIV, drink, drugs, general neglect. One might have assumed that they would be especially vulnerable. Yet Father Alexander is not aware of any cases of Covid. Some would claim that there is a link between poverty in England and in India. Alexander spent a couple of years working with Mother Teresa, now St Teresa of Calcutta. She is in his intercessory prayers. Could it be that his parish is under her protection?

As few of us wish to be accused of superstition, there is a possible explanation based on natural causes. The poor of Soho and the even poorer Indians sent to trudge on a long route home have one thing in common. They both live in the open air. Is that a protection against Covid?

There are lots of questions and it would help if they could be given rapid answers. That seems unlikely. Large numbers of Covid victims, including relatives, will want their day on the witness stand. They will not lack lawyers to assist them, pro bono of course. But none of this will help us to deal with a future pandemic. Nor will a detailed examination of Boris Johnson’s peccadillos. It seems likely that Leftists in the media will try to use Covid to attack the Sunak government. Boris will not object to being part of this, as long as it weakens Sunak. Bojo’s moral failings go far beyond the odd unruly party. 

It is to be hoped that Lady Hallett will be able to focus her inquiry on the big picture and on the future, and that she will also manage to imagine what it must have been like for the decision-makers. But there could also be one interim recommendation. At the outset of any future pandemic, put a general in charge. Back in the beginning, previous Prime Ministers urged Johnson to do just that. Good soldiers know how to make a rapid appraisal, to improvise where necessary, to give clear instructions and to ensure that they are carried out: all the qualities necessary to cope with a crisis. But Boris dithered that opportunity away. Unfortunately, he may not be so ineffectual when it comes to undermining the new PM.

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