STEPHEN GLOVER: Instead of this giant blame game, the Covid Inquiry should really be examining whether lockdown was ever worth it
The Covid inquiry is degenerating into a blame game, with various factions accusing one another in increasingly shrill terms of failing in their duty.
An organisation called Covid-19 Bereaved Families For Justice, which has a privileged role in the inquiry, claims that the Government in general, and Boris Johnson in particular, are responsible for causing thousands of unnecessary deaths.
On Tuesday, it was the turn of former No 10 advisers Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain to point a vengeful finger at Mr Johnson, supposedly inept ministers and endless numbers of allegedly half-witted civil servants.
Meanwhile, a clutch of supercilious barristers at the inquiry cross examine politicians they don’t like, and scientists they don’t respect, as though dealing with recidivist criminals.
It is, of course, right that questions should be asked about the competence of politicians and civil servants. They should be held accountable for their mistakes. There may then be a small chance that, when the next pandemic comes along, the same errors won’t be repeated.
A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Covid-19 Inquiry shows Former Director of Communications at 10 Downing Street, Lee Cain, giving evidence on Tuesday
I can certainly think of things the authorities got wrong. For example, in March 2020 thousands of patients, some of whom had Covid, were shunted out of hospitals into care homes to free up beds. HMG gave the disease a boost among the elderly.
Then there was the Government’s misuse of public money. Was £400 billion prudently spent during the pandemic? Definitely not all of it.
A staggering £37 billion was put aside for the lamentable NHS Test and Trace measure, while, as Chancellor, Rishi Sunak squandered £849 million on the risible Eat Out To Help Out scheme.
So, yes, if the inquiry is able to get to the bottom of such blunders, it will be doing the country a service — as long as the process is constructive, and doesn’t become a blame-fest whose main objective is to hang, draw and quarter Boris Johnson, and display what is left of him to public ridicule.
But there is one issue, to my mind far more important than any other, that is so far receiving scant attention. Were the three lockdowns imposed by the Government either effective or morally justifiable? Or have they done lasting harm?
The inquiry’s Chair, Baroness (Heather) Hallett, doesn’t appear very interested in these crucial questions.
Some of us had qualms about lockdowns. I was in favour of the first one in March 2020 — perhaps wrongly — but like lots of people I became increasingly doubtful of both their efficacy and their appropriateness in a supposedly free society.
Since Covid receded (though it hasn’t gone away; people are still dying with it, or of it) there has been mounting evidence of the enduring damage caused by lockdowns.
Many people with serious illnesses didn’t receive the medical treatment they needed. According to Prostate Cancer UK, there was a tripling of deaths among men with prostate cancer in the first year of the pandemic.
In 2022 — after the lockdowns — more than 650,000 deaths were registered in the UK, an astonishing increase of 9 per cent over the pre-pandemic figure for 2019.
People have been dying in greater numbers because of cancelled operations or postponed treatment during the pandemic. The NHS is mired in crisis, less able than ever to cope with demand.
Former chief adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings leaves the UK Covid-19 Inquiry at Dorland House on Tuesday
Children lost months of education, and by 2022 the proportion of 11-year-olds reaching the expected level in reading, writing and maths had fallen from 65 per cent to 59 per cent.
Their mental health has suffered too, with the number of children with problems growing from 12 per cent to nearly 18 per cent. Around 124,000 pupils haven’t returned to school full time following the pandemic.
And so it goes on. Almost everywhere one looks there’s evidence of long-term scarring. The justice system has ground to a halt because courts were closed. Crown court backlogs are now twice their pre- pandemic levels.
According to new research, lockdowns and other restrictions have had a ‘real lasting impact’ on the memory and brain health of those over the age of 50. This may be attributable to factors exacerbated by the pandemic, such as not exercising enough and drinking too much alcohol, as well as loneliness and depression.
Granted, even without lockdowns there would have been undesirable consequences. Pandemics are not pleasant. But who can doubt that the shutting down of society for many months, and the suspension of a great deal of economic activity, has had a terrible effect?
Rather than fostering a culture of blame, the Covid inquiry should be urgently considering whether, in view of the lasting social damage lockdowns have caused, there was sufficient health justification for them.
It would seem not. We know Sweden — whose government rejected lockdowns and instead offered its citizens social distancing advice — ended up with a significantly lower Covid death rate than Britain, Italy or France, which enforced stringent lockdowns.
Recently published research by America’s Johns Hopkins University and Sweden’s Lund University suggests the first lockdown prevented as few as 1,700 deaths in England and Wales.
They estimate that, across Europe, lockdowns ‘resulted in 6,000 to 23,000 deaths avoided’. In an average flu epidemic, around 72,000 deaths are recorded in Europe.
Was it worth it? That’s the question the inquiry should be asking. For every life that lockdowns may have saved during the pandemic, there may have been many more other lives lost, as well as enduring social damage.
Former Deputy Cabinet Secretary in the Cabinet Office Helen MacNamara gave evidence to the Covid Inquiry on Wednesday
And yet, so far at least, Lady Hallett and her team of omniscient lawyers have displayed little enthusiasm for tackling these questions.
They seem uninterested in exploring whether measures specifically aimed at protecting the elderly and vulnerable could have been effective while allowing society to continue to function.
It is as though they have already made up their minds — along with Sir Keir Starmer, the BBC and most epidemiologists — that lockdowns represented the right approach, and there’s no point in discussing the matter further.
There was a telling exchange at the inquiry last week involving the distinguished lockdown sceptic, Professor Carl Heneghan of Oxford University. When he suggested that ‘even my opinion exists as evidence’, Lady Hallett cut in: ‘Not in my world it doesn’t, I’m afraid.’
Professor Heneghan and his colleague, Dr Tom Jefferson, have written to Lady Hallett accusing her of favouring scientists who backed lockdown.
Two of this persuasion — Professors Neil Ferguson and John Edmunds — were practically feted when questioned by one of the barristers.
Unless this inquiry considers the merits and disadvantages of lockdowns in a balanced way, it will be a waste of time and public money. I’m not optimistic. We appear to have embarked on a mammoth blame game in which the ultimate culprit has to be Boris Johnson.
Of course, mistakes were made. Let Mr Johnson and ministers own up to them. Yet to listen to parts of the inquiry and to Covid-19 Bereaved Families For Justice, you’d think the Government caused the pandemic. In fact, Britain, according to new UN data, had a lower excess death rate than Spain, Germany and Italy.
Lockdowns are brutal, blunt and coercive. How depressing it will be if this blame-obsessed Covid inquiry declines to consider them fairly, and leaves us with the unexamined conclusion that they must be imposed again when the next pandemic arrives, as it surely will.
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