The covid questions

Three years on, how did the government do?

Former health secretary Matt Hancock’s role during the pandemic is still stamped negatively on the UK’s covid story. REUTERS / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Three years on from the first lockdown, Covid, like Brexit, is a word mostly avoided in government circles, unless, like Brexit, it’s mentioned in terms of success. Self-congratulatory mention of the UK’s swift vaccine development is the typical response from ministers questioned on the benefits of Brexit. But this claim, like certain other Brexit boasts, is misleading, since those early vaccine actions were taken under European laws that still applied to the UK at the time. The eventual rollout was an undeniable achievement, with the UK leading the way amongst Western countries, but successive prime ministers and ministers would perhaps be wiser to focus on the vaccine facts of that period rather than adding Brexit-boosting fictions.

So how, then, has the UK fared overall in battling covid? Government failure to do more to stop the spread of covid early in the pandemic was later judged as one of its worse public health failures, according to a joint report by the Health & Social Care and Science & Technology committees. The government’s initial approach, backed by its scientists, had been to try to manage the situation and in effect achieve herd immunity. The then prime minister Boris Johnson’s infamous “take it on the chin” quote in March 2020 still lingers bitterly in the memory of many, particularly those who lost loved ones at that time.

But the report itself also received criticism, with some claiming it focused too much on practical issues, such as problems with laptops, rather than on those who’d died. The role of the former health secretary and recent reality-TV star, Matt Hancock, is also indelibly stamped, mostly negatively, on the UK’s covid story over the past three years. Despite numerous warnings from care-home providers, Hancock’s department initially pursued the disastrous policy of discharging elderly patients straight back into care homes from hospital without testing them for covid, resulting in thousands of lost lives. And in October 2020 Hancock denied he’d broken the government’s drinking curfew, despite reports he’d stayed in the Commons bar beyond 10pm. But that was nothing to the furore that erupted as photographs emerged of him embracing his then aide, Gina Coladangelo, in what appeared to be CCTV footage from inside the Department of Health and Social Care. Despite the very clear breaking of social distancing rules, Johnson refused to sack his health secretary, with a spokesman saying the prime minister “considered the matter closed” after Hancock had apologised. Parliament and the public felt differently, and eventually Hancock resigned. Then there was “Partygate,” the scandal of boozing and partying inside Number 10 during lockdown. Resignations and police fines followed, but like covid, Partygate refuses to go away, leaving another stain on the government’s handling of the crisis.

No pain without profit

Why do political allies win, as nurses lose?

When disaster strikes there are always people ready to profit from misery. And although many companies and individuals stepped up quickly and diligently to provide desperately needed PPE equipment when the covid situation worsened, the awarding of certain multi-million-pound government contracts, without competitive tender and via a fast-track “VIP lane” (since declared illegal), led to outrage. Accusations of corruption and sleaze thundered around the corridors of power as friends and relatives of some politicians, as well as certain Conservative party donors, undeniably made vast amounts of money from the pandemic.

Perhaps the most notorious case is the continuing saga of Baroness Michelle Mone, a Conservative life peer. Mone and her husband Douglas Barrowman are said to have secretly received tens of millions of pounds from a company awarded a government contract to supply masks and protective gowns – which, incidentally, proved unusable. The couple deny any connection with PPE Med Pro, the company that received the contracts, with Mone taking a leave of absence from the House of Lords, in order “to clear her name of the allegations that have been unjustly levelled against her.”

Meanwhile, the very same nurses who were applauded weekly at the height of the pandemic for their selfless and exhausting devotion to duty, have reluctantly taken strike action to get the pay rise most in the country believe they deserve. Both the current prime minister Sunak and then-incumbent Johnson clapped vigorously at the time, but then the government dragged their feet on fair-pay talks.

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