The bells tolled at 4pm today, the deadline when every shred of evidence would be handed over by law to Heather Hallett, the retired high court judge. The government set up the Covid inquiry, ordained its wide remit, gave its chair legal powers to command whatever evidence she deems necessary, but then balked at obeying it.
Public attention will focus on the contents of those WhatsApps and notebooks. What were ministers and officials saying to each other? Is Dominic Cummings right that Boris Johnson said “let the bodies pile high?” Other forms of callous cynicism may be exposed if we discover that ministers knew “eat out to help out” was a plague spreader and put the economy before safety. More will be revealed about fast-tracked mega-contracts for cronies, and about those who were heroes among the good scientists and doctors. Ministers’ tone will set the context for all they did, as bereaved families watch hawk-eyed every step of the way. This battle over admissible evidence and black-ink redactions is only the first struggle among politicians hoping to preserve their reputations. By the final reckonings, whatever the blame and praise, these actors will have left the political stage.
The inquiry is divided into three modules: before, during and after the pandemic. Vital lessons will be learned – practical, technical, scientific and administrative – about lines of command and speed of response. Tales of human strengths, stupidities, brilliance and failings will be absorbing. But by far the deepest political lesson resounding into the future will come from module one, “Resilience and preparedness”. This will “look into the preparedness for the pandemic” and assess “if the pandemic was properly planned for and whether the UK was adequately ready for that eventuality”. We know the answer already.
Among those summoned to give evidence for this module, to be heard from 13 June, are two men who had long left power by the time Covid blew in. Yet David Cameron and George Osborne may have most to answer for. By 2020 the condition of the country had been largely set by Osborne, the powerhouse behind the frontman. Cameron had been the cover, adept at seeming reasonable, no gleam of the ideologue in his eye as he hugged huskies and summoned a big society of community action. The Brexiters, whom he called “fruitcakes”, were the extremists who allowed these two to seem like moderates, their copies of Hayek and Friedman hidden in their back pockets.
The devastation they caused from their first, June 2010, budget set the pace for a period of austerity more savage than anything attempted by Margaret Thatcher, whose face had adorned their walls as students. They tightened thumb screws in budget after budget, stripping the public realm and sparing nothing in their pursuit of an ever-smaller state. The six chancellors who followed Osborne were cut from the same state-shrinking cloth, and pursued his austerity programme with equal zeal.
The national unpreparedness Osborne left in his wake starts with the NHS itself, which the Conservatives inherited at peak performance in 2010 after years of generous finance. By the plague year of 2020, its funding per head had been whittled down for more than a decade, despite a fast-rising and elderly population. Sally Warren, director of policy at the King’s Fund health thinktank, watched it happen from within government: she points to fewer beds, training cuts, ballooning staff vacancies, shortages of equipment and tech support, and the axing of capital for repairs.
But beyond this increasingly threadbare NHS, Warren told me that Covid had torn through a vulnerable population in a deteriorating state of health. “Too many people’s resilience was weakened. Improvements in life expectancy stalled in the 2010s and Covid made the weakest iller.” This was due to “lack of early diagnosis”, but also “the state of housing, air quality, people’s diet. Your income, your environment, your exposure to advertising and lack of physical activity affected resilience.” The government’s failure to challenge food manufacturers over salt and sugar helped increase child obesity. NHS community services were drained and funds redirected to keep acute services going, she said.
Covid attacked a sick population and a weakened health and social care service. Osborne was ruthless in his benefit cuts, especially those affecting children, plunging them further below social security levels in similar countries. How were the lowest paid supposed to stay home on sick pay that is still the lowest in the OECD? Low pay, insecure jobs, rising rents and some of the most overcrowded housing in western Europe all contributed to the mortality toll. Since the pandemic, 25% more people have been off work, reporting long-term illness.
None of these underlying vulnerabilities began in 2020 when Covid struck. Of all the lessons learned at the end of this inquiry, the most important one for voters will be this: never again can we fall for the small-state, low-tax promises that leave everyone vulnerable, without the security of good government or the protection of good public services. Cameron is already shamed into silence by his Greensill greed. As for Osborne, he deserves the sort of public condemnation in the final report that should see him stripped of all the undeserved rewards showered on him since leaving parliament. Lady Hallett has started out splendidly resistant to political chicanery: her report could be a never-again landmark on the need for a resilient society.
Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist