Good afternoon. The world still turns, your heart still beats, and we’re in the first flush of summer. Make the most of it.
Yesterday’s decision to legally challenge the Covid inquiry demonstrated a biblical level of disingenuousness from the Government. Every step of the way there has been secrecy, opacity, legalism, pettiness and an aggressive resistance to basic transparency. It’s a spectacle of political self-harm.
That applies to both Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak. The former prime minister was asked to hand over “all material requested by the Covid inquiry” to the Cabinet Office, starting, naturally, in January 2020. Instead, he acted whiter-than-white and made a big deal of how open he was being, while only handing over material dated from April 2021, after the last lockdown had ended.
Hiding behind Boris
Sunak, meanwhile, is hiding behind Johnson. The Cabinet Office told the inquiry that there are “important issues of principle” over passing on Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApp messages and diaries. In truth, they are concerned that allowing this degree of openness for the former prime minister will lead to a demand for the same level of accountability for serving ministers, and more importantly, the current prime minister himself.
The ostensible issue of principle is that internal ministerial conversations have to have some degree of privacy or else they will feel unable to be open, either with their colleagues or their officials. It’s plainly self-serving but there is a sliver of truth to it. We know how ministers speak in public – like automata, repeating meaningless stock phrases and jargon. It’s important that they do not speak that way in private as well, or else nothing will get done.
The stakes of this inquiry
But we should be clear about the stakes of this inquiry. Nearly a quarter of a million people have died during Covid in the UK – and even that figure is almost certainly an underestimate, based on death certificates. Countless others had their lives permanently damaged, either by long Covid, or losing loved ones without being able to sit alongside them, or by having their careers wrecked. Others, especially older people, were permanently changed by the sudden isolation and found themselves unable to regain their previous confidence when it was over. We all lost our most foundational liberties.
There are long-term effects, like the impact of children’s lost education, particularly in lower-income areas, which will lower their earning potential throughout their lives and national tax revenue alongside it. The school closures mean that from the mid 2030s, all workers in their 20s will have lower skills than they would otherwise have had. And then there are the emotional effects. We still haven’t really grappled with what we all went through. There is a deep psychological scar down the face of the country, a trauma memory of those months. It’s only slowly being revealed.
We need to learn the lessons
It is absolutely pivotal, in the wake of an event of that magnitude, to take proper stock of what happened. We owe it to those who lost loved ones. And we owe it to those who didn’t. We need to know if the right decisions were made. We need to know if errors were justifiable. We need to know if the people in charge at the time demonstrated the seriousness the moment demanded of them. And these questions are not just about political scalps or blame. They are practical. There will be another pandemic. Maybe in a hundred years. Maybe much sooner. We need to learn the lessons.
Given the scale of the task the inquiry faces, the balance of risk lands firmly on disclosure rather than secrecy. Failing to understand what happened in that period is a much greater risk than a potential moderate chilling effect in ministerial conversation.
But of course, this isn’t about that. Not really. There is another fact lying at the heart of this dispute, one which is now largely forgotten but could form a core part of the inquiry’s findings: it is that Sunak’s record during the pandemic raises serious questions about his judgement.
This has mostly been hidden by the furlough scheme. The Treasury acted with unusual speed and against its most deeply ingrained penny-pinching instincts to protect people’s livelihoods during lockdown. In truth, it had little choice. It was that or a complete economic collapse. But it worked, and Sunak benefited immensely. It earned him a warm sense of approval from the public. After all, who doesn’t like the bloke who pays them free money at a moment of supreme crisis?
The implications of Eat Out To Help Out
But Sunak did other things too. He was the mastermind behind Eat Out To Help Out in 2020, a policy so deranged that it seemed like the work of someone who was actively working to help the virus.
Hospitality needed help. But then, there were plenty of things the Government could have done. It could have helped restaurants serve people outdoors, for instance through paying for outdoor heaters and helping to challenge local restrictions. It could have spent the money providing ventilation to those places that could not serve outdoors to inhibit the transfer of Covid. Indeed, ventilation is the precise thing that could have alleviated the impact of Covid. This was repeatedly stated by scientists – and repeatedly ignored.
Instead, Sunak subsidised people to go out without any of those preventative measures in place. The economic assistance to the sector was marginal, but its epidemiological effect was significant. The scheme, a paper by Thiemo Fetzer at the University of Warwick found, “caused a significant rise in new infections in August and early September accelerating the pandemic into its… second wave”.
As that second wave approached, Sunak resisted efforts to initiate a “circuit-breaker” lockdown to stop the spread. In September of that year, he made sure prominent lockdown sceptics, like Sunetra Gupta, Carl Heneghan and Anders Tegnell, were invited into the Downing Street decision-making machine, to directly affect government policy. According to the Resolution Foundation, the delay of the winter lockdown resulted in up to 27,000 additional deaths.
That story may offer the best indication of why the Government is behaving in such a startlingly secretive way: because if that inquiry does get to the bottom of what happened during Covid, a great deal of the blame for what went wrong is likely to land with the current prime minister.
What to Watch This Weekend: Spider-man: Across the Spider-verse
It’s finally here. The sequel to one of the greatest superhero films of all time: a riot of imagination, design, and pure, sweet, comics love. The first Spiderverse film did so many things at once, so effortlessly, that it felt like a miracle it could be produced at all. It introduced a half-Latin half-Black Spider-man to the cinema screen in the shape of Miles Morales. It invented its own startling animation style. And it showed how easily you could get mainstream audiences to buy into a multiverse storyline of the type that now dominate blockbusters and even win Best Picture Oscars. Pure joy. And now there’s every indication the second film is as good as the first. Bring it on.
What to Listen To This Weekend: The Media Show on Radio 4
I’m mostly recommending this because I’m on it and my egotism knows no bounds. But the recording, taken during the Hay festival last Friday, provides a rare moment in which the methods and contradictions of political journalism are provided to a mainstream audience. And also, more importantly, I got to take the piss out of Boris Johnson’s former director of communications.
What to Read This Weekend: A History of Zionism, by Walter Laqueur
This seminal text on the history of Zionism is now subject to sustained challenge from academics in the subject, even if it remains the well-respected classic introduction to the topic. But if you’re a newbie, it is a very rare thing – a key work, which is written so beautifully and thoughtfully that it reads more like a novel.
The manner in which Laqueur sketches personalities and weaves together a complex portrait of ideas and histories is truly astonishing. Worth reading simply for the mastery of the craft, whatever your interest in the subject matter.