No sacred cows

My plans for a Covid inquiry

25 July 2020

9:00 AM

25 July 2020

9:00 AM

The public inquiry into the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis has already started. Not the official one, which won’t get under way until next year, but the unofficial ones. First out of the gate was the Sunday Times on 24 May, followed by the New Statesman and, last week, the Financial Times. In addition, there will be ‘inquiries’ by other newspapers and magazines, parliamentary select committees, television and radio programmes, think tanks and universities, scientific and medical journals.

Few will be able to resist blaming the UK’s higher-than-average death toll on the government’s failure to lock down earlier. That’s been the verdict of those that have been published so far, and we know in advance that Sir Patrick Vallance and Neil Ferguson will confirm this when they’re asked to testify by Uncle Tom Cobley. They’ve said as much already. The only thing all these ‘non-partisan’ panels of experts will dis-agree about is exactly how many dead bodies can be chalked up to Boris Johnson’s ‘dither and delay’.

If you’re a lockdown sceptic like me, this is frustrating. It will mean the next time a new virus emerges from China, however mild, the government will place the entire country under lockdown within 24 hours of patient zero getting a sore throat. Just like in March, all hospital patients still breathing will be turfed out of their beds to ‘protect the NHS’, billions will be spent on pop-up hospitals that are never used, schools will be closed unnecessarily for six months, the Chancellor will borrow hundreds of billions so the economy can be mothballed indefinitely, and Matt Hancock will spend billions on a track-and-trace system that is about as effective as two tin cans connected by a piece of string. All in a desperate effort to avoid being blamed for not acting quickly enough.

I may have no choice but to convene a public inquiry of my own. The experts I’ll invite to sit on the panel won’t be the usual hacks with an axe to grind against Boris, Dominic Cummings, Michael Gove et al because they won the EU referendum and the last general election. They’ll be genuinely independent-minded scientists and doctors whose only interest is in the truth.

I’m thinking of people like Dr John Lee, the ex-professor of pathology who’s written a series of sceptical pieces for this magazine; Carl Heneghan, the Oxford professor who runs the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine and helped to expose the shortcomings of Tamiflu; David Spiegelhalter, the Cambridge statistician who can analyse this year’s excess deaths and put them in context; Sunetra Gupta, the Oxford epidemiologist who believes we may have achieved herd immunity already; and Michael Levitt, the Nobel laureate who understood early on that the number of people infected with coronavirus in any given region was not growing exponentially. And I’ll ask Lord Sumption to chair it, of course.

I don’t suppose they will be any more sympathetic to Boris and his pals than the kangaroo courts being set up across the country. They just won’t take it for granted that indiscriminately locking down the entire population was the right thing to do. They will look closely at those countries that didn’t lock down, such as Sweden, South Korea and Belarus, as well as the seven US states that didn’t, and puzzle over the fact that they experienced fewer deaths per capita, on average, than those places that did. They will wonder, I imagine, why no country before this year ever tried to tackle a viral epidemic by imposing a full lockdown, save for Mexico in 2009, and why so many countries rushed headlong to adopt this draconian policy in spite of the WHO recommending against it last year.

The historically minded panellists will look at comparable episodes in the past, such as the Asian flu pandemic of 1957-8, and ask why no country placed its citizens under house arrest then. I don’t want to second guess my dream team, but I’d be surprised if they conclude that the government’s biggest mistake was not locking down the country a week earlier. More likely, they’ll criticise Boris for rejecting herd immunity in favour of herd opinion.

Now all I need is a friendly billionaire who can fund this inquiry. And perhaps a change of identity so my chosen experts won’t Google my name and tell me to take a running jump. Somehow, it must be made to happen. We cannot afford to repeat the same stupid mistakes again.

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