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A dock of sorts for the men who failed Britain during Covid – but they may yet escape | Andy Beckett

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In so many ways, the Covid inquiry feels as if it is going very badly for the Tories. Seemingly every session in the plain, low-ceilinged, rather severe room next to Paddington station in London confirms more of our worst suspicions from the time of the pandemic about the Conservatives’ performance in government. That Boris Johnson, many of his ministers and some of his most senior advisers were disastrously unsuited to dealing with one of the most lethal crises Britain has ever faced is becoming ever clearer, question by question, document by document.

The lead counsel for the inquiry, Hugo Keith KC, sometimes uses phrases such as “failings in the heart of the government” when he is questioning ministers and ex-ministers – and even more ominously for them, when he is summarising or making observations about their answers. It’s hard to see at this stage how the inquiry’s report, the first part of which is currently scheduled for publication early next summer, can be anything other than damning. And Johnson and Rishi Sunak – or “Dr Death”, as one of the government’s most senior scientific advisers called him during the pandemic – haven’t even been interrogated by the inquiry yet. Johnson is scheduled to appear next week, with Sunak expected soon afterwards.

That all this is happening so close to the next election, moreover, is partly the Conservatives’ own fault. The Johnson government resisted demands for a Covid inquiry for many months, and then the Sunak government delayed it further by refusing, in vain, to hand over Johnson’s unredacted Covid-era notebooks, diaries and WhatsApp messages. Fittingly, the Tories’ attempts to reduce scrutiny of their pandemic chaos have been incompetent, hugely insensitive to its victims, and so far highly counter-productive.

And yet, it is still possible to wonder whether the inquiry will have the lasting political impact that it should. The Conservatives are already so discredited by other great failures in government, from Brexit to the budget hubris of Kwasi Kwarteng and Liz Truss, that there is a danger that their mismanagement of the pandemic becomes just another chapter in their downfall. Because of Partygate, and the reports on it by Sue Gray and then the Commons privileges committee, and their ultimately fatal consequences for Johnson’s premiership, the Covid inquiry is not even the first or necessarily the most noticed reckoning about the Tories’ pandemic record.

The inquiry’s public hearings are not expected to end until mid-2026. If the Conservatives lose the election, then most of the inquiry report will be published when the Tories it focuses on are in opposition, or no longer in elected politics at all.

That was the case with the Labour figures criticised by the Chilcot report into the Iraq war – the last time an official inquiry took a hard look at such a large-scale government failure. The Chilcot report received much coverage when it was published in 2016. The already flawed reputations of Tony Blair and his bellicose lieutenants were further damaged. But public and media attention quickly moved on. As with the Tories and Covid, many Britons had already made up their minds about Labour and Iraq, and were now interested in other issues, such as the Brexit vote, which occurred just a fortnight before the Chilcot report finally emerged. Even for public inquiries into the gravest matters, politics does not stand still.

Already at the Covid inquiry, the few dozen seats in the room for members of the public are not always full, even on days when well-known Tories are being questioned. The inquiry has to compete for attention with a Westminster world, and global events, even more feverish or frightening than they were in the 2010s. The pandemic, so recent, so horrendous, and for lots of people not even finished, has receded fast in many of our minds, partly because we want it to, and the inquiry has to struggle against that collective forgetting.

But it is doing so with more assertiveness than public inquiries often manage. The most slippery witness this week was Michael Gove, who spoke in sentences that were immensely long, superficially polite, and almost never blamed individuals, but instead the vaguer “structure” and “system” of British government – perhaps a sign that he did not want to make enemies with his party in such flux. Yet he was repeatedly and successfully pressed to answer more concretely. By the latter stages of his four-hour examination, his body language had tightened, one of his feet no longer resting on the floor under the desk at which he was sitting, but raised and bobbing furiously.

The week’s other Tory witnesses presented different challenges. The former chancellor and health secretary Sajid Javid gave brief, bland answers at first, before being drawn by good questions into more interesting territory, such as the Johnson government’s almost total lack of concern about long Covid. Meanwhile the former foreign secretary Dominic Raab, who was prime minister for a month in 2020 when Johnson caught the virus, demonstrated that even disastrous Tory governments can still see themselves as functional and above criticism. “I’m trying,” Raab said testily at one point, “to give you a thoughtful, considered answer about how government works.” The inquiry, he suggested, had “the luxury of hindsight”.

Without hindsight, there would be little or no accountability, about the pandemic or anything else. This is perhaps what many Tory ministers and ex-ministers would like, given that some of them happily served under Johnson, a prime minister so averse to scrutiny that during the 2019 election campaign he avoided an interview by hiding in a fridge; and now others serve under Sunak, who frequently dodges prime minister’s questions by going on foreign trips.

The Covid inquiry is, in part, an undeclared attempt to reverse this trend of greater and greater evasiveness by governments, a trend that is really an attack on democracy itself. The whole mornings and afternoons, or even longer, that politicians are having to spend being probed by the inquiry – Johnson is scheduled to appear for two days – are such a contrast with how our rulers usually present themselves, talking briefly to favoured interviewers or in front of carefully selected audiences.

On Thursday, the former health secretary Matt Hancock – along with Johnson and Sunak, one of those considered most likely to be castigated by the inquiry – looked grim-faced and pale as the questions to him began. He and other Tories will no doubt continue to use the inquiry to try to settle scores and exonerate themselves. But in their very public moments of discomfort in the low-ceilinged hearing room there are victories for the victims of Covid, and for everyone who has suffered their rule since 2010.


In so many ways, the Covid inquiry feels as if it is going very badly for the Tories. Seemingly every session in the plain, low-ceilinged, rather severe room next to Paddington station in London confirms more of our worst suspicions from the time of the pandemic about the Conservatives’ performance in government. That Boris Johnson, many of his ministers and some of his most senior advisers were disastrously unsuited to dealing with one of the most lethal crises Britain has ever faced is becoming ever clearer, question by question, document by document.

The lead counsel for the inquiry, Hugo Keith KC, sometimes uses phrases such as “failings in the heart of the government” when he is questioning ministers and ex-ministers – and even more ominously for them, when he is summarising or making observations about their answers. It’s hard to see at this stage how the inquiry’s report, the first part of which is currently scheduled for publication early next summer, can be anything other than damning. And Johnson and Rishi Sunak – or “Dr Death”, as one of the government’s most senior scientific advisers called him during the pandemic – haven’t even been interrogated by the inquiry yet. Johnson is scheduled to appear next week, with Sunak expected soon afterwards.

That all this is happening so close to the next election, moreover, is partly the Conservatives’ own fault. The Johnson government resisted demands for a Covid inquiry for many months, and then the Sunak government delayed it further by refusing, in vain, to hand over Johnson’s unredacted Covid-era notebooks, diaries and WhatsApp messages. Fittingly, the Tories’ attempts to reduce scrutiny of their pandemic chaos have been incompetent, hugely insensitive to its victims, and so far highly counter-productive.

And yet, it is still possible to wonder whether the inquiry will have the lasting political impact that it should. The Conservatives are already so discredited by other great failures in government, from Brexit to the budget hubris of Kwasi Kwarteng and Liz Truss, that there is a danger that their mismanagement of the pandemic becomes just another chapter in their downfall. Because of Partygate, and the reports on it by Sue Gray and then the Commons privileges committee, and their ultimately fatal consequences for Johnson’s premiership, the Covid inquiry is not even the first or necessarily the most noticed reckoning about the Tories’ pandemic record.

The inquiry’s public hearings are not expected to end until mid-2026. If the Conservatives lose the election, then most of the inquiry report will be published when the Tories it focuses on are in opposition, or no longer in elected politics at all.

That was the case with the Labour figures criticised by the Chilcot report into the Iraq war – the last time an official inquiry took a hard look at such a large-scale government failure. The Chilcot report received much coverage when it was published in 2016. The already flawed reputations of Tony Blair and his bellicose lieutenants were further damaged. But public and media attention quickly moved on. As with the Tories and Covid, many Britons had already made up their minds about Labour and Iraq, and were now interested in other issues, such as the Brexit vote, which occurred just a fortnight before the Chilcot report finally emerged. Even for public inquiries into the gravest matters, politics does not stand still.

Already at the Covid inquiry, the few dozen seats in the room for members of the public are not always full, even on days when well-known Tories are being questioned. The inquiry has to compete for attention with a Westminster world, and global events, even more feverish or frightening than they were in the 2010s. The pandemic, so recent, so horrendous, and for lots of people not even finished, has receded fast in many of our minds, partly because we want it to, and the inquiry has to struggle against that collective forgetting.

But it is doing so with more assertiveness than public inquiries often manage. The most slippery witness this week was Michael Gove, who spoke in sentences that were immensely long, superficially polite, and almost never blamed individuals, but instead the vaguer “structure” and “system” of British government – perhaps a sign that he did not want to make enemies with his party in such flux. Yet he was repeatedly and successfully pressed to answer more concretely. By the latter stages of his four-hour examination, his body language had tightened, one of his feet no longer resting on the floor under the desk at which he was sitting, but raised and bobbing furiously.

The week’s other Tory witnesses presented different challenges. The former chancellor and health secretary Sajid Javid gave brief, bland answers at first, before being drawn by good questions into more interesting territory, such as the Johnson government’s almost total lack of concern about long Covid. Meanwhile the former foreign secretary Dominic Raab, who was prime minister for a month in 2020 when Johnson caught the virus, demonstrated that even disastrous Tory governments can still see themselves as functional and above criticism. “I’m trying,” Raab said testily at one point, “to give you a thoughtful, considered answer about how government works.” The inquiry, he suggested, had “the luxury of hindsight”.

Without hindsight, there would be little or no accountability, about the pandemic or anything else. This is perhaps what many Tory ministers and ex-ministers would like, given that some of them happily served under Johnson, a prime minister so averse to scrutiny that during the 2019 election campaign he avoided an interview by hiding in a fridge; and now others serve under Sunak, who frequently dodges prime minister’s questions by going on foreign trips.

The Covid inquiry is, in part, an undeclared attempt to reverse this trend of greater and greater evasiveness by governments, a trend that is really an attack on democracy itself. The whole mornings and afternoons, or even longer, that politicians are having to spend being probed by the inquiry – Johnson is scheduled to appear for two days – are such a contrast with how our rulers usually present themselves, talking briefly to favoured interviewers or in front of carefully selected audiences.

On Thursday, the former health secretary Matt Hancock – along with Johnson and Sunak, one of those considered most likely to be castigated by the inquiry – looked grim-faced and pale as the questions to him began. He and other Tories will no doubt continue to use the inquiry to try to settle scores and exonerate themselves. But in their very public moments of discomfort in the low-ceilinged hearing room there are victories for the victims of Covid, and for everyone who has suffered their rule since 2010.

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