The government has announced its intention to hold an Inquiry into lessons that can be learned from the COVID pandemic. It has also said that now is not the time to hold such an Inquiry – it intends to launch this one in spring 2022.
Of course, it is true that we shall know more about both the virus itself and the results of the different approaches to handling it by spring 2022 than we do today. On the other hand, with luck, COVID will largely be history by then and any lessons learned will be relevant only to future pandemics.
On balance, we believe that the right time to hold the COVID inquiry is immediately:
- like most of Europe, the UK has handled the pandemic badly in comparison with other parts of the world – there are already important lessons that can be learned;
- despite the presence of effective vaccines, COVID remains very dangerous;
- decisions taken in the coming weeks and months will save – or cost – tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of millions of pounds of economic damage to the UK, so we need our government to learn those lessons now.
European Countries Have Handled the Pandemic Badly
Different countries around the world have adopted widely diverging strategies for handling the virus – and the results they have achieved vary widely. When we look at the global picture, this is what we see.
The best performing countries tend to be in the Far East and Australasia; many of the worst performing countries are in Europe. And the UK sits firmly amongst the worst.
This is not simply a matter of national pride: it is a matter of lives and economic damage. If the UK had performed in line with a typical (median) country, well over 100,000 of our COVID victims would still be alive today. We must not repeat those mistakes.
The Pandemic Remains Extremely Dangerous
The UK vaccine roll-out has proceeded well and, according to the government, 55% of the population has now received at least one dose of the vaccine while 31% have received both doses. Furthermore despite the presence of new variants of the virus, indications so far are that the vaccines remain effective.
The last lockdown has been effective and both deaths and cases are running at far lower levels.
It might be tempting to conclude that the pandemic is effectively over.
Medical opinion is less sanguine. The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has said,
“Modelling shows that taking step 3 of the roadmap is alone highly unlikely to put unsustainable pressure on the NHS. It is, however, likely to lead to R being greater than 1 in England, and therefore an increase in infections.
The full impact of step 3 on hospitalisations and deaths will not be seen until mid-June at the earliest. It remains highly likely that there will be a further resurgence in hospitalisations and deaths at some point, however, the scale, shape, and timing remain highly uncertain.”
Independent SAGE, has been even more explicit about the risks of the B.1.617.2 variant of the virus (the India variant) which has been spreading rapidly in the UK:
If a new variant that is 30-40% more transmissible than B.1.1.7 becomes dominant in the UK, we could see a wave that is as bad as the January surge – even if vaccines remain as effective against B.1.617.2 as they are against B.1.1.7.”
Another peak of the same size or greater than the last would both cost tens of thousands of lives and necessitate yet another lockdown. For that reason, Independent SAGE recommends that the government changes strategy.
We Need to Learn The Lessons Now
If the danger is still present, and the government’s performance today suggests that in the past it has followed suboptimal strategies for handling the virus – both of which are true – then it becomes even more important for the government to learn the lessons which it has so far failed to learn.
A COVID Inquiry focusing on strategic implications, rather than identifying blame, need not be the last word on the subject and it could be extremely powerful in helping to avoid further needless loss of life in the UK.