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Politics: Covid-19 Public Inquiry shines a light in some very dark places

By Richard Thomson

With Parliament Prorogued last week as we awaited the King’s Speech and the announcement of the UK Government’s new legislative programme – likely the last one before the widely-expected General Election next year – there were elements in the top news stories of looking back at what has gone before, and looking forward at what may be to come.

Looking back was very much the order of the day at the UK Covid-19 Public Inquiry as those at the heart of the UK Government during that time were called to give evidence. It’s fair to say that while there was much media interest in the evidence given by Boris Johnson’s former special adviser Dominic Cummings, we probably learned more about the machinery of the UK government – and a few new words I’d wager many of us had never come across before – than we did about the intricacies of how to handle a global pandemic.

Boris Johnston pictured during one of the many Covid briefings.
Boris Johnston pictured during one of the many Covid briefings.

The Inquiry still has some way to go and senior Ministers in the UK Government have yet to give their evidence, but the statements from Mr Cummings and also former senior civil servant Helen McNamara have shone some light in what appears to have been very dark places indeed.

The medical profession’s maxim of ‘First, do no harm’ in its approach to its patients is one which the UK Government would have done well to observe in its approach to the global pandemic. Instead, what we’ve heard in recent days is a story of an entirely misplaced belief in the notion of a British exceptionalism and that would somehow protect us from Covid which was by then running rampant through other countries.

Yet we heard that those who should have been at the centre of decision-making were on holiday. We heard that female civil servants were marginalised and ignored; that concerns about domestic abuse victims went unheeded; that personal protective equipment (PPE) labelled as ‘unisex’ was – at best – ill-fitting for female health workers.

We also learned that the devolved governments – who remember all have responsibility for health in their own countries - were repeatedly ridden-roughshod over, undermining their public health messaging and creating confusion.

In deciding how to respond to a pandemic, mistakes were bound to happen. I daresay the Scottish Covid Inquiry will also turn up things which could – and should – have been done better. However, the approach taken by those inside Whitehall as laid bare by this Inquiry is frightening. And I suspect we’ve not heard the half of it.

Meanwhile, looking forwards at what may become a more frequent occurrence, we learned that the sale of a ‘significant’ North Sea licence by an energy company had fallen through, with the UK Government’s tax and regulatory regime cited as the reasons for undermining investor confidence.

This comes on the back of the recent failure by the UK Government to attract any bids for its licensing round for offshore wind – even after repeated warnings from the industry that the maximum strike-price was set too low to be profitable.

Personally, I see nothing wrong with licensing new fields in the North Sea for drilling – as part of an orderly and just transition, we’ll need that energy source for some time. Especially if the UK Government continues to bungle the fiscal incentives needed to bring about the energy transition that everyone agrees is necessary.

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