The appearance of Matt Hancock at a joint inquiry by two parliamentary select committees on Thursday 10 June was widely anticipated, but unfortunately eclipsed. The big story of the day was the G7 summit in Cornwall, which seemed to grab all the newspaper headlines. This was most unfortunate, as the pandemic has sadly cost the lives of almost 128,000 people. Close to a million are suffering with long Covid. So many others have lost jobs, many businesses have collapsed and millions have been adversely impacted in other ways. At close to five million, waiting lists for hospitals are at an all-time high and Mr Hancock’s response is: ‘we did our best in difficult and challenging circumstances’. Can we really accept the word of a minister who blames others and suffers from loss of memory when it suits?
Coronavirus: lessons learnt?
The select committee hearing was looking at lessons learnt from the pandemic. Mr Hancock faced just over four hours of questions from MPs. Yes, we all accept that this was a national emergency on an unprecedented scale; but so many other countries, especially in east Asia, were able to manage it much better and had far fewer deaths and cases of Covid than the UK. His stock answer – and that of the government – was that it followed the medical and scientific advice. But why was the lockdown delayed? During this time the races at Cheltenham were held, attracting hundreds of thousands to that area of the UK. There was an international soccer match attracting thousands of Italian supporters. Will we ever know definitely how many additional deaths were caused by these events and by the delay in introducing the lockdown?
‘Protective ring’ around care homes?
Under intense questioning from MPs, Hancock was quizzed about the discharge of elderly patients directly to care homes. This strategy has faced intense scrutiny, especially following the evidence given by Dominic Cummings two weeks earlier to the same committee. Mr Cummings alleged that Hancock has lied to the Prime Minister on multiple occasions, and he also said he’d recommended Hancock be sacked on 15-20 occasions.
The key issue was testing patients for Covid before they were discharged to care homes. It’s been clear for a long time that many patients were transferred untested, thus substantially increasing the risk of spreading the disease, and that many thousands of care home residents died. Estimates for excess deaths caused by this testing failure range from 25,000 to 30,000. Hancock had originally told the Prime Minister that these patients would have been tested, but now he says he was only just building the testing capacity then. Cummings alleges that Hancock lied about this and about the ‘protective ring’ he said was put around care homes.
Hancock was also questioned about why nobody understood the dangers of Covid spreading through agency workers who moved from care home to care home. While the teams of scientific and medical advisors were very comprehensive in producing guidance for the government, there were no representatives from the care sector giving input in the early months of the pandemic. It has been alleged that the care sector was thrown under a bus to help the NHS hospitals. Hancock reminded the committee about the success in building the Nightingale Hospitals at lightning speed, but these were barely used and massive staff shortages had not been factored in.
The committee heard that, despite the intense pressure on the care sector, several providers of brand-new, unoccupied facilities made an offer to the government to house and isolate many of patients being moved from hospitals to care homes. Their letter was sent, but – apparently – never reached the Health Secretary; certainly this offer was never taken up.
Bias and favouritism by Hancock?
PPE shortages dominated the news agenda in the early stages of the pandemic, and the government moved very fast to secure additional supplies. The army was called in to help with logistics on distribution. But despite clear evidence of shortages in many hospitals, Hancock declared that there was never a national shortage. The PPE procurement decisions and methods used are subject to a legal challenge by the Good Law Practice, and following a recent five-day trial the final ruling is expected in the coming weeks. It is alleged that a special VIP ‘fast-track’ for procurement was available to donors and friends of the Tory party. Such allegations of bias and favouritism were denied by Mr Hancock at the inquiry.
In my view it’s been clear for a long time that the government made massive mistakes during the pandemic, principally delaying the lock downs, sending untested patients to care homes, and bias in awarding PPE contracts. But what really struck me was one of the last questions asked: had Mr Hancock visited the Covid memorial wall dedicated to all who had died, located a few hundred yards from Parliament? His response was no. Yet this is so poignant that Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah has joined over 200 other parliamentarians in asking for the memorial to be made permanent.
Ahead of the formal inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic, which is unlikely to report before the next general election, I am hopeful that Mr Hancock will be held culpable for his multiple failures. Perhaps he tried his best, but in my opinion it amounted to gross negligence. Other government ministers who potentially colluded in the awarding of contracts should also be held accountable for their actions. The decision to delay the initial lockdown was a massive failure of government oversight. It’s happened yet again, with a significant delay in stopping fights to India; the buck stops with the Prime Minister for this.
It is possible that we may never know how many lies were told. The full truth may never be known, but we do know many lives were lost. We remember every single one of those who died, and those still battling with long Covid. We must never repeat the mistakes made, but eagerly embrace the lessons that we can learn with hindsight and experience.
This battle against Covid is not yet won!