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UK may ‘not have been well prepared at all’ for pandemic, Covid Inquiry told

13 Jun 2023 5 minute read
People hold pictures of loved ones lost during the pandemic outside the UK Covid-19 Inquiry. Photo Lucy North/PA Wire

The UK may not have been “very well prepared at all” to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, the lead lawyer to the official Covid-19 Inquiry said as public hearings began.

Hugo Keith KC said on Tuesday that the nation was “taken by surprise” by “significant aspects” of the disease that has been recorded on 226,977 death certificates.

He argued that preparations for Brexit had distracted the Government from making the improvements required to the strategy on how to tackle a deadly pandemic.

Inquiry chairwoman Baroness Heather Hallett vowed that those who suffered in the pandemic will “always be at the heart of the inquiry” as she launched the first public hearing.

The retired Court of Appeal judge welcomed the “dignified vigil” held by bereaved relatives outside the building in west London as she vowed to undertake the thorough investigation they deserve.

Key questions

She said she intends to answer three key questions: was the UK properly prepared for the pandemic, was the response appropriate, and can lessons be learned for the future?

Mr Keith said that, near the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the Department of Health and Social Care, along with the three devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, published a Covid-19 action plan “setting out how they planned to tackle the coronavirus outbreak”.

“The plan stated that the United Kingdom was well prepared to respond in a way that offered substantial protection to the public. Whether that was actually the case will be examined in module one,” he said in his opening statement.

“Even at this stage, before hearing the evidence, it is apparent that we might not have been very well prepared at all.”

Mr Keith said the significant risks of pandemics had been long assessed and officials had planned for them.

“But fundamentally, in relation to significant aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic, we were taken by surprise,” he added.

The lawyer said there is a need to question whether the health services were sufficiently funded or suffered from “under-investment” ahead of the pandemic that “left in its wake death, misery and incalculable loss”.

Inequalities

Health inequalities and high levels of diabetes, respiratory illness, obesity and heart disease are also relevant to the state of the nation entering the pandemic, he said.

“Huge, urgent and complex policy decisions” were necessary in areas including shielding, employment support, schools, borders and lockdown restrictions,” he added.

“Few of those areas were anticipated, let alone considered in detail.”

Mr Keith said he fears the evidence indicates the “enormous” preparations for a possible no-deal Brexit in 2019 led to a “drain (in) resources and capacity” for emergency planning.

He said it is “clear” that preparing for the EU departure “crowded out and prevented some or perhaps a majority of the improvements” that the Government knew was necessary.

“Extraordinary though it may seem”, he also said, there had been “very little thought” about what the impact of a national lockdown could be ahead of the pandemic.

Mr Keith said that key to the first phase of the inquiry is whether the “terrible outcomes” for people with existing health conditions and disabilities, as well as for people from deprived or ethnic minority backgrounds, were “foreseen or could have been mitigated”.

Members of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign group lined up outside, holding pictures of loved ones as they expressed frustration at feeling “excluded from sharing key evidence”.

Lady Hallett said she had set out an “ambitious” timetable for the inquiry, adding: “To conduct the kind of thorough investigation the people of the United Kingdom deserve takes time and a great deal of preparation.

“I hope they will understand when they see the results of the work we are doing that I am listening to them. Their loss will be recognised.”

Devastating impact

A 17-minute video was played at the inquiry, showing people describing the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic on themselves and their loved ones, including those who had died alone.

One woman cried as she said her father had died, followed, just a few days later, by her sister, and that she suffered guilt over the way they had died.

Another woman said she had “lost everything”, while others described suffering anxiety.

People also told how they had not hugged each other at family funerals because they were sticking to Covid social distancing rules laid down by the Government.

The hearing was also told that people could not be buried in outfits chosen by families because body bags had to remain sealed.

The inquiry will be split into six areas, with the first looking at whether the UK was adequately prepared for the pandemic.

Interim reports are scheduled to be published before public hearings conclude by summer 2026.

A separate Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry chaired by Lord Brailsford is looking at the pandemic response in devolved areas in Scotland.


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Steve A Duggan
Steve A Duggan
10 months ago

No kidding! Do we really need an inquiry to tell us what we already know? However, we do need an inquiry to find out why the country wasn’t ready, especially as there was a practice run, by the government, in 2016. Was the failure due to government incompentency, neglect (remember herd immunity anyone?) or both (probably both). And what will happen to the people involved if these causes are realised?

George Thomas
George Thomas
10 months ago

But before Brexit preparations there was austerity demanding greater services delivered immediately with less money.

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