Boris gets grilled by the Covid Inquiry on Wednesday and is expected to deliver one of his Hugh Grant-style apologies: “Golly, gosh, sorry for, uh, killing your grandma.” Things augur badly. The Inquiry has turned into an indictment of Boris’s No 10, with reports of him delaying action and making the brave argument that Covid was “nature’s way of dealing with old people.” The fact that he nearly died himself has been curiously forgotten.
But beneath the tweetable clips a more complicated narrative is emerging, one that contradicts the Inquiry’s approach and makes Boris look better than it thinks. If I were him, I’d play the Kerry Packer defence (I’ll explain what that is later on).
The Inquiry is meant to examine what happened and what we can learn from it, but partly because of the prominence given to the families of the bereaved, it presumes that something in Britain went uniquely and disastrously wrong. Blame is pinned on Brexit populists. Scientists get an easy ride. We are being drip-fed the thesis that Britain would be better run by unelected experts.
In the latest module, the KCs have examined a narrative they consider axiomatic - that the UK should have had the wit to shut its borders in January 2020 and, failing this, to lockdown far sooner than March 23. Yet Neil Ferguson testified that Britain “never had any significant chance of preventing the infection entering the country”, and that “globally containment did not work.”
Humanity was operating in the dark. The rate and nature of the contagion were unknown. Officials had to balance a threat they didn’t understand against the likelihood of public compliance with control measures - a debate that punctures the notion of innate scientific consensus, for every discipline has its perspective. Sir Patrick Vallance, a physician and clinical pharmacologist, called Chris Whitty, a public health expert concerned about lockdown’s wider effects, a “delayer”. Even when prophesying that thousands could die a day, Ferguson - an epidemiologist - warned that “the cure... could be worse than the disease.”
Britain relied on rumours from China and scary footage from Italy, and calculated its odds on whiteboards. Imagine the task - Boris’ task - of sifting through a pile of terrible options to pick what seemed to be the least awful strategy, hence his legitimate questions about the balance of harms to health, economy and liberty.
Those sweary WhatsApps we’ve heard so much about made precious little difference. The Inquiry has found that there was about a week between concept and implementation of lockdown, the length of time it would take any government to implement such a policy (Vallance does not think actual error cost the country anything more than a “few days.”) Matt Hancock, whose reputation has sunk so low that soon I’m a Celebrity contestants will be forced to eat him, insists a lockdown should’ve occurred three weeks earlier, and that he recommended one on March 13. But this would only have saved us 10 days; he admits there is no evidence that he said this; and given that many have testified that he claimed the situation was initially under control, his word is far from trustworthy.
The key thing is that Britain acted darn close to when the rest of the West did, and our death rate sits around the middle of international tables. Some witnesses have expressed frustration at the Government’s strategy during the rest of 2020 - eat out to help out, the circuit breaker etc - but what we now know about the impact on waiting lists or children’s education validates Boris’ concerns about social cost.
So, we have discovered that the Brexit government, cobbled together from prima donnas and chancers, was dysfunctional. But through observing the KCs, we’ve also seen what really motivates them: their obsession with diversity, with gossip, and a cult of expertise that the experts themselves dismiss. For example, scientists are not trained in economics, and during Covid, to quote Vallance, “the science was there for everyone to see” but “the economic advice wasn’t”. In that spirit, the Inquiry has displayed little interest in the fate of business during the lockdown, even though it was supermarket cashiers who kept us fed while NHS nurses did the Macarena in empty wards. If I were Boris, I’d point out such omissions and make my pitch for a more common sense-based philosophy.
In 1991, the Australian parliament called the media mogul Kerry Packer to testify on the subject of corporate tax avoidance, in the expectation that they would make mincemeat out of him. It backfired, turning a villain into a folk hero.
Packer opened by stating “I appear here this afternoon reluctantly.” He stared the MPs down and ridiculed pompous questions that made no sense. The affair climaxed in an exchange about tax that you can watch on YouTube and remains justly famous in Australia. Denying that he evaded tax, he nonetheless boasted about “minimising” it, for “if anybody in this country doesn’t minimise their tax they want their head read. As a government, I can tell you you’re not spending it that well that we should be paying extra.”
Boris should emulate Packer and expose the inquiry for what it is: not a neutral court but the prosecuting body of a class ideology.