- Written by Jim Reid and Michelle Roberts
- BBC News
The lead attorney in the Covid inquiry said no thought was given to the “potentially massive impact” of the lockdowns on society in 2020.
As an inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic begins to hear evidence, Hugo Keith KC says the UK may not have been well prepared “at all”.
He added that it was “unusual” that the lockdowns had not received much attention.
Government figures show 227,321 people have died in the UK with Covid mentioned on the death certificate.
Mr Keith said at the first public hearing that the virus had caused “immeasurable death, misery and loss”.
He said that while Covid could not have been avoided, the main issue was whether its impact on the UK was inevitable.
Keith told the inquiry there had been “little debate” about whether a national lockdown could have been needed before the pandemic or whether it could have been avoided, adding that there had been a failure to think about the consequences for education and the economy.
On Tuesday, Mr Keith was addressing the inquest as he prepared to take oral evidence from the first witnesses later in the week.
Its first topic – or unity – will examine how well the UK is prepared for Covid until January 2020.
“Even at this point, before listening to the evidence, it is clear that we may not have been well prepared at all,” said Mr Keith.
What is the UK Covid-19 inquiry?
- It’s about seeing what happened and learning lessons
- No one will be found guilty or acquitted
- Any recommendations that are made should not be adopted by governments
- The investigation has no official deadline, but public hearings are scheduled until 2026
- Scotland is conducting a separate investigation in addition to the broader British investigation
President Baroness Hallett has pledged that the inquiry into the handling of the coronavirus pandemic will be the “thorough investigation” that the public deserves.
The former High Court judge praised the “dignified vigil” of the bereaved family members who held a silent protest outside the building.
Lady Hallett said there were three main questions that needed to be answered for the “millions of people who have suffered and continue to suffer”:
- Was the UK adequately prepared for a pandemic?
- Was the response appropriate?
- Can we learn lessons for the future?
This first part of the investigation will hear from key politicians, civil servants, scientists, unions, health and care organizations, groups representing victims and their relatives, and more.
The Covid-19 group Bereaved Families Justice criticized the inquiry’s timeline and said people were “excluded from sharing key evidence”.
They’ve named the Inquiry’s Every Story Matters project – where members of the public can share their experience with the Inquiry through a file website – An “inappropriate” process because stories will be anonymised, abstracted and possibly “open to bias and interpretation by third parties.”
Addressing critics of the inquiry, Lady Hallett said she hoped they would understand the difficult balancing act she had to strike.
“I am listening to them, their loss will be recognized, and they will be able to contribute to the investigation.”
Keith, the inquiry’s advisor, said the UK had been “surprised” by “important aspects” of the pandemic, including the lockdowns.
“As unusual as it may seem, given that it is a word forever etched into the nation’s consciousness, there was very little debate before the pandemic about whether a lockdown might be necessary in the event of a runaway virus, let alone how a lockdown could be avoided.
“Not much thought has been given to how something as complex, difficult and damaging as a national lockdown could ever be imposed, should it prove necessary.
Likewise, there seems to have been a failure to consider the potentially huge impact on education and the economy.
He said the UK was preparing for a more flu-like outbreak, and he questioned how well and funded the NHS would be to deal with it.
“No amount of foresight or planning can guarantee that no country will make mistakes when a disease strikes, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to be as prepared as we can reasonably be,” Keith said.
No country can be fully prepared, but it certainly can be unprepared.
Mr Keith highlighted ‘shocking’ data showing the Covid death rate was two and a half times higher in some of the UK’s most disadvantaged areas than the wealthiest, with people in some ethnic minority groups or those with a disability more likely to get sick or die. .
The extent to which these outcomes can and should be anticipated and mitigated will be a “big question” in the first unit, he said.
The broader political environment including the potential impact of Brexit on contingency planning will also be considered.
“Is concern for the risks of a no-deal Brexit — Operation Yellowhammer as it was known — a drain on the resources and capabilities that should have continued to fight the next pandemic?” Mr. Keith asked.
“Or has this general and operational planning, in fact, resulted in people being better trained, well organized, and in fact more prepared to deal with Covid?
“Based on the evidence so far…we very much fear that this may be a first.”
The inquiry will also look at whether the collapse of the Northern Ireland power-sharing agreement affected the authorities’ ability to plan for and respond to the pandemic.
Mr Keith said it was unlikely we would ever know how Covid began – whether it emerged from a lab leak or from farmed wild animals sold in Wuhan. Nor when the first human infection occurred, he said.
“For the purposes of this investigation, this knowledge does not matter.”
In his opening remarks, Pete Weatherby KC, adviser to the Covid-19 group Bereaved Families for Justice, said the “closest to a comprehensive plan” for dealing with Covid in 2020 was a 2011 document drawn up to protect the UK from an outbreak. flu.
“With a pandemic, time is of the essence and time lost is measured in lives,” he said.
“Families expect that the evidence will show … little to no ministerial leadership and committee chaos that led to poor planning and ultimately a reaction rather than a proactive response to the virus.”
In response to the Brexit allegations, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister said the government would not respond to every issue raised in the inquiry.
He added that it is up to the government to respond at the appropriate stage.
Lady Hallett has asked to see former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages between him and about 40 politicians and officials, but his successor, Rishi Sunak, is contesting that.
The Cabinet Office has launched a legal challenge against the request, arguing that some of the letters are irrelevant. It is believed that this is the first time the government has taken legal action against its public investigation.
Johnson said he was “quite satisfied” with sending WhatsApp messages after May 2021. Previous messages are not available because his mobile phone was involved in a security breach and has not been used since.
Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock also said he was happy to share his letters, although much of it was leaked by journalist Isabelle Oakeshott, who helped Mr Hancock write his book, Epidemic Memoirs.
In a statement about the exchange of messages, Rishi Sunak’s spokesperson said the matter was “still ongoing” and “obviously…will be resolved through the normal process”.
“In general, we continue to provide tens of thousands of information to the investigation committee, 55 thousand documents over the past 11 months, and we will do so in a spirit of transparency and frankness.”
How many covid deaths have there been?
The UK experienced one of the worst first waves of Covid in Europe in the spring of 2020.
In April and May of that year, some 160,000 deaths were recorded: 60,000 more than you would expect based on the years immediately preceding the pandemic.
But by that winter, the UK had overtaken many countries in Eastern Europe that seemed to have escaped the first wave.
The UK’s Office for National Statistics continued to analyze these figures for Europe and, as of July last year, put the UK in the middle of the package.
According to Department of Health figures, 227,321 people have died across the UK with Covid recorded on a death certificate.
Covid vaccines have prevented many deaths and serious illnesses from the virus – more than 151 million doses have been administered in the UK.
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