It might not have been the immediate public inquiry sought by opposition parties and bereaved families, but the landmark joint report into the UK’s handling of Covid proved less toothless than some feared.
Published almost exactly a year to the day since the MPs’ inquiry was first announced, the “lessons learned to date” report, prepared by two Commons committees after mammoth evidence sessions, is not short on lessons – some of them expressed with notable bluntness.
The delay to impose a first lockdown last spring was “one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced”; planning for a possible virus outbreak smacked of “British exceptionalism”; the lack of early testing capacity was “an almost unimaginable setback”.
The condemnation goes on, echoed through 151 pages, with just about the only element of the pandemic response spared a kicking being the vaccine rollout.
While the Commons health committee and science and technology committee are cross-party, taking in Labour and SNP members as well as Conservatives, they are led by Tory ex-ministers, Jeremy Hunt and Greg Clark.
Clark, the business secretary under Theresa May who was shunted to the backbenches by Boris Johnson, is unlikely to expect a return to ministerial life and has relatively little direct political investment in the issues scrutinised.
In contrast, Hunt was health secretary from 2012 to 2018 and was central to planning for such pandemics. He has clearly not relinquished the idea of coming back into government, or even competing again to be Tory leader, and would thus arguably have a vested interest in not overly upsetting either Boris Johnson or Conservative MPs more generally.
The Lib Dems had in particular expressed worry that Hunt’s involvement in pandemic preparations, including a report into a 2016 exercise based on the outbreak of a respiratory virus – details of which only emerged in the Guardian last week – made his hand in the report worrying.
While the final report, published on Tuesday, is highly critical of both ministers and scientists, opposition MPs involved said initial versions, notably its conclusions, were considerably less damning when first presented. It took many hours of “robust” debate to agree the final wording, they said.
Wrangling is standard on cross-party reports but the stakes here were high: the first official attempt to apportion some responsibility for what was arguably the greatest political crisis since the war, and one where the UK fared notably worse on several metrics than neighbouring countries.
The view from opposition parties is that the committees’ report showed what can be gained from such rapid inquiries but should be seen only as a start.
While Johnson has promised a full public inquiry into the pandemic, this will not begin until spring 2022 at the earliest. It was this delay that prompted Hunt and Clark to launch their own process, arguing it could avoid future errors.
It was, however, always a process with a limited scope and beset with political compromises. Thus, while many failings are outlined, they are generally institutional; there is nothing in the report likely to hasten the end of a ministerial career, or even to prompt an urgent question in parliament.
“This isn’t enough,” one MP involved in the process said. “We owe it to the families of those who died to get to the bottom of who got it wrong. And that needs a public inquiry.”