Whitehall on trial: how the government is preparing for the Covid inquiry

6 June 2020

9:00 AM

6 June 2020

9:00 AM

During the pandemic, Nicola Sturgeon has developed a reputation for announcing things just before the UK government does. But there has been no Downing Street follow-up yet to her announcement last week at First Minister’s Questions that there will be a full public inquiry into Scotland’s handling of the crisis.

This silence should not, however, be taken as a sign that there won’t be a UK-wide inquiry as well as a Scottish one. Staff inside No. 10 accept that there will have to be one: when 50,000 people are confirmed or suspected to have died from a new virus, a private ‘lessons learned’ exercise won’t be enough. They are also confident that an inquiry will support their claim that throughout the first half of the year they followed the scientific advice they were given, although they know that they will not entirely escape blame.

No. 10 is adamant that a public inquiry isn’t being considered yet, however, and that the focus is on the here and now. But there are plenty of people in Whitehall who are already preparing for it. There is more than one senior figure who has drawn up a timeline of their actions going back to January.

Perhaps the most important question about any inquiry is what kind of person would chair it. Leveson was a judge, Chilcot a former civil servant. There is a view in government that, in the words of one secretary of state, ‘a lawyer would be the worst person to chair it as they will take it down the blame route’. The government’s belief, predictably, is that the focus of an inquiry should be on learning lessons, not apportioning blame.

In many ways, the government is already conducting a rolling inquiry into what has gone wrong. As one source at the heart of government admits: ‘Some things have so manifestly not worked that reversing them has been an admission of failure.’

The thing that has most clearly failed is the UK’s existing pandemic plan. It was set up to face the wrong enemy: influenza, not a coronavirus. Boris Johnson emphasised this to Jeremy Hunt at last week’s liaison committee hearing; Hunt was health secretary from 2012 to 2018. It costs Johnson little to admit that the plan he inherited was flawed. But this crisis has also shown that the divisions within the UK health system between the NHS, social care and public health don’t work. The reforms introduced by the co-alition government atomised these areas, which need to cooperate.

Perhaps the biggest government volte-face in this period has been on testing. The failure to increase testing earlier is blamed on Public Health England, which was hostile to cooperation with the private sector. It is also held responsible for the erroneous view that there was no asymptomatic transmission of the disease. ‘Any inquiry that doesn’t find serious failing with Public Health England won’t be worth anything,’ says one exasperated government figure.

The appointment of Simon Case as the No. 10 permanent secretary — a title last held by Jeremy Heywood — and the fact that he has been given special responsibility for Covid-19, is an admission that the centre of government has not performed as it should have done during this crisis. Heywood became cabinet secretary 18 months after being made No. 10 permanent secretary. Many in Whitehall think that Case will make the move even faster than that.

Another key change in Whitehall is the establishment of a new project management office (PMO) in Downing Street. The office is headed by Tom Shinner, who is regarded as so important that Johnson wrote personally to his boss on 15 March to ask him to release Shinner to the government. This PMO monitors delivery of projects across Whitehall and is moving top civil servants to where they are most needed, with the result that for the first time in living memory No. 10 is involved in delivering policy, not just making it. It is a precursor to further changes in the next few months to how No. 10 and the cabinet office are organised.

It is easy to imagine that in the civil service the question of government reform pits political radicals against the forces of conservatism. But in fact there is agreement among senior figures on both sides of this divide that there can be no return to the Whitehall status quo ante. The permanent secretaries in the cabinet office and the cabinet secretary are having their own discussions about how to change things. There will almost certainly be differences between what they want to do and what the Prime Minister is considering, but change is coming. This crisis has seen to that.

For the government, the most politically difficult part of any inquiry will be what happened in care homes. There the death toll has been truly horrendous, more than one in ten residents have died, either directly from Covid or as a result of the conditions created by the crisis. The desire to free up hospital capacity in March may well have led to the virus being pushed into care homes.

Many in government lament how little control they have had over care homes during this crisis. One cabinet minister points out that the government has been able to stop the virus from becoming a major issue in prisons through action from the top. But when it came to care homes, the need to work through local authorities made things much harder.

Dominic Cummings said in his rose garden press conference that government mistakes had been made, including by him, since January. When I asked another member of the Prime Minister’s circle what he thought their biggest error was in their handling of the virus, he replied, ‘We were slow to see how serious it was.’ The misleading nature of the information put out by the Chinese after the initial outbreak in Wuhan made it difficult to tell how dangerous this disease really was, but with the benefit of hindsight it is clear that more could — and should — have been done in the first three months of the year.

The failures exposed by this crisis require an inquiry to understand what went wrong and what can be done to ensure that Britain is not one of the hardest-hit countries in the world next time. But this means the inquiry must be quick. It cannot go on for 12 years, as the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday did.

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