TeaThe UK’s delay in examining its handling of Covid deserves its own investigation. Allegations in the Daily Telegraph about the then health secretary, Matt Hancock – in which he dismissed expert advice to test anyone entering a care home for coronavirus at the start of the pandemic – may not be sensational. (Hancock strongly rejects the claim.) Hindsight is a poor guide for decisions made in conditions of chaotic uncertainty. Whether the risk of infection for care homes was greater from hospitals than from community contacts was certainly a matter of debate. Yes, almost 20,000 care home deaths were recorded in just four months, but only an official inquiry can tell us why.
While Britain’s public administration appears to be in shambles, its obsession with public inquiry is booming. Huge sums have been allocated to investigations into past injustices, tragedies and scandals: Bloody Sunday, Hillsborough, Grenfell, Infected Blood, the Manchester Arena attack, the Post Office computer and the Boris Johnson drinking parties. Very often, these take a lot of time and consume a lot of money.
The Covid test assumes particular significance as there is every possibility of a recurrence of the pandemic. Another round of bird flu is about to come. We need to know why test-and-trace was such a fuss. Was such a huge sum spent wisely? Which aspects of the lockdown saved lives, and which only made the officials feel good? What went wrong with the liaison between hospitals and care homes? How corrupt was the procurement system?
A sensible government would have asked itself this question long ago – and would have digested the answer. Sweden took a fundamentally different approach to lockdown from Britain and has been heavily criticized for its minimalism. Yet when the crisis ended, Sweden quickly investigated its actions and produced an 800-page report a year ago. Instead, Britain has spent 18 months mulling over what the terms of reference should be, while lawyers and advisers lick their lips. He is eagerly waiting for the gift of 10 years.
In the case of Hancock’s texts, the relationship between a nationalized NHS and a local and privatized care sector is an urgent problem for the welfare state. The Cameron government’s austerity program reduced public sector care provision. Local councils were prompted to dispose of their homes and private equity was swept away. One report claimed that in many cases, 16% of the bed fee was now going towards repaying the loan and 15-30% on “rent”, a net revolving around it. Coastal companies. This is one reason hard-pressed managers responded to Covid with extreme caution, adding to the misery and shortening the lives of thousands.
The danger now is that any progress in dealing with future pandemics will be met with stalling at the ministerial level about “waiting for the results of the Covid test”. The same would apply to the wider issue of repairing the failed relationship between hospitals and care homes. Hancock’s allegations can be thanked for focusing attention on at least that breakdown. The investigation should start now and end this year.