David Cameron ‘to face Covid inquiry’ on whether austerity hampered pandemic response

David Cameron will be part of a public hearing on the Covid pandemic that starts in June and is set to last for seven years - Hannah McKay/Reuters
David Cameron will be part of a public hearing on the Covid pandemic that starts in June and is set to last for seven years - Hannah McKay/Reuters

David Cameron has been asked to give evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry about how prepared the country was for a pandemic.

The former prime minister could be questioned on whether austerity had an impact on the health service’s readiness for a pandemic.

George Osborne, who served in Mr Cameron’s cabinet as chancellor, has also been approached by the inquiry team, which may contact up to five former prime ministers.

Preliminary hearings for the inquiry, chaired by Baroness Hallett, have already begun. However, costs are already mounting.

The Telegraph recently disclosed that the inquiry, which is due to begin taking witness evidence in public hearings in June this year, is set to last up to seven years. An end date has not been set and the Government has refused to say how long it might take.

It is also on course to be the most expensive investigation of its kind in history, with the bill so far reaching almost £114 million before the first hearings have even begun.

The current “modules” of evidence are resilience and preparedness, core UK decision-making, political governance and the impact of Covid-19 pandemic on healthcare systems in the UK. Hundreds of witnesses are expected to be called during the inquiry.

Logic to questioning Cameron

A source said there was “logic” to questioning Mr Cameron, who was prime minister between 2010 and 2016, and the evidence was likely to centre on a number of “key dates”.

It is understood that Liz Truss will be asked to give evidence, as she was a cabinet member during the pandemic. Boris Johnson will also be questioned by the inquiry.

Gordon Brown, the former Labour prime minister, who left office in 2010, could also be questioned having drawn up the country’s national security strategy that included how to handle a pandemic. It is not clear whether the inquiry has contacted Mr Brown.

Mr Osborne and Mr Cameron could face scrutiny over whether austerity played a part in failures to prepare adequately for the pandemic.

Emma Norris, deputy director of the Institute for Government, said that financial decisions could have had an impact on the country’s preparations for a pandemic.

“One of the most important tasks facing the Covid inquiry is to help the country be better prepared for any future pandemic, and the inquiry chair is right to call the former PM if she thinks his evidence can support the inquiry in achieving that,” she told ITV News.

She added that the inquiry needed “to understand whether and how they considered the impact of austerity on public service resilience and how austerity might – for example – affect the country’s response to key risks like a pandemic”.

Issues such as personal protection equipment supplies and bed capacity could be linked to budget cuts, said experts.

Services were extremely stretched

Sally Warren, director of policy at The King’s Fund, said: “The long period of austerity throughout the 2010s meant that health and care services were extremely stretched before the pandemic hit – with high numbers of staff vacancies, declining performance against key waiting time targets and deteriorating buildings.

“This significantly reduced the resilience of health and care services to be able to deal with the pandemic.

“The health of the nation also stagnated during the decade, as starkly demonstrated by stalling life expectancy gains.”

Sir Bernard Jenkin, the Tory MP, said it was right to question Mr Cameron but that the exercise should be about learning lessons, rather than apportioning blame.

“The purpose of the inquiry is to learn from what went well and went badly for the future,” he said.

“There clearly was plenty of preparation for a pandemic, some of which was very useful but some of which was useless and much of that preparation had been done during the period of previous governments.”

He said the Government had planned for a pandemic, but for a flu outbreak rather than a coronavirus.

“Ever since Gordon Brown produced the first national security strategy, a pandemic flu was regarded as one of the very top threats,” said Sir Bernard.

“How much preparation was done, how essential that was is an essential part of the inquiry. I would very much hope that we are interested in the systemic and cultural reasons of why some things went well, why some went badly, and we can get far more out of witnesses without fear of blame than if it turns into a witch-hunt.”

A spokesman for the inquiry said: “The inquiry is preparing to take evidence in June for its investigation into the UK’s pandemic preparedness and resilience. We have sent out requests for written witness statements from individuals who can assist this investigation.”