All the gear: no idea

The battlefield is a scene of constant chaos.
The winner will be the one who controls that chaos, both his own and the enemies’.

If one were to publish a long list of ‘Things that we didn’t expect to hear’, I rather suspect that ‘Boris Johnson’s government didn’t have a clue during the Covid pandemic’, and ‘Johnson changed his mind on everything all the time’ would not appear on that list.

You could lose days following the revelations of the Covid Inquiry, the messages zapped between civil servants, Junior Ministers, Cabinet Ministers and SPADs via WhatsApp in the run-up to, and during, the lockdowns and the Covid pandemic. All basically flagging up something that is causing surprise to precisely no-one: that the Government was winging it. Big time.

Now, I’m a great believer in winging it. Sometimes the best decisions, the best presentations, the best business quotes, even the best writing (cough) is done on-the-hoof, the back of a fag-packet, or on one’s phone on the train on the way to a lunch, as inspiration strikes. The key word there, of course, is sometimes. Not always. And I would venture to suggest that the best decisions for how to navigate a country – and a health service that’s rickety at the best of times – through an unprecedented pandemic, are not decisions that should be taken anywhere near the hoof.

Having said that, had decisions been taken at the more usual pre-pandemic speed beloved of many civil servants, local government and two-toed sloths, we would never have got a vaccine. Read Vaxxers, the book by the redoubtable Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert and her colleague Dr Catherine Green OBE, and you develop a profound admiration for the way that some of the pandemic organisation was done. Professor Gilbert says at one point that, thanks to the miracle of Zoom and Microsoft Teams, meetings that under different circumstances might have been put off for months, because ‘that committee isn’t due sit until April’ took place over Zoom, on Saturday mornings, or evenings at 9pm, after the dinner had been cooked; or at 6am before the rest of the holed-up-at-home families were up. They happened, and they happened fast.

Nobody really expected Covid, apart from those epidemiologists whose job it is to look out for, and plan for, such events. Johnson wasn’t expecting, when he swept to his stonking great majority in December 2019, that he would be telling his electorate to stay at home, exercise for one an hour a day, and keep two metres from anyone not in one’s ‘bubble’, just three months later.

Johnson didn’t expect to have Covid heaped upon him, nether the disease itself, nor the dealing of it, but he did, and he had to deal with it. Alas, according to the revelations thus far of the Covid Inquiry, he wasn’t up to the job. Neither, it appears was the then Health Secretary Matt Hancock. Nor the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. So far, so not surprising.

A picture is emerging, rapidly, of a shambles at the heart of government, of a dysfunctional Westminster family, running close to chaos, because the country’s leader was, it appears, temperamentally unsuited to the challenges, the scale of which were unprecedented. Would any other leaders have been as bad? Corbyn, the anti-vaxer definitely, Cameron, the Brexit-bottler, probably not. Teresa May, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, John Major: possibly, but probably not.

I’m hoping that the inquiry will reveal just what it was that caused Dominic Cummings to turn on his erstwhile boss with a savagery that Iago would have been proud of. Or maybe that will turn out to be ‘who’ it was.

Hindsight, as they say, has 20;20 vision, and it is easy to look back and say what should have been done. The times were unprecedented, the challenges too, but doesn’t that mean that the response should have been too? Instead of just, making it up as they went along?

There is a lot going on in the world at the moment, that requires sorting out, so it’s understandable if people wonder why we are spending time and money going over all this again. Covid is done, do we really need to know what was and wasn’t a bad idea? Relatives of those lost to Covid would say, yes. Sadly, for our current PM, I think one answer to that one might be the extent and structure of the furlough scheme, and Eat Out to Help Out.

Still, this inquiry is going to run and run, so you can expect more from me on the topic.

However, we have these inquiries so that we can learn from the mistakes of our recent history, and not make them again. Alas, if what’s going on in the Middle East is anything to go by, it doesn’t seem as though humanity is capable of learning from history.

I seriously recommend this book, even if you aren’t remotely ‘sciencey’. It’s fascinating. You can get it from the big non-tax-paying giant, but do the right thing and order it from your local independent bookshop, or the local library, or here from HIVE, which will make a donation to a local independent of your choice.



About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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