'Unreasonable' to expect UK to have been fully prepared for Covid

‘Unreasonable’ to expect Britain to have been fully prepared for Covid because scale of the pandemic was ‘unprecedented’, first witnesses tell inquiry

  • Professor Jimmy Whitworth and Dr Charlotte Hammer today gave evidence
  • The public health experts were the first witnesses called for the public hearing
  • READ MORE: Go easy on us, Government lawyers beg Covid Inquiry 

It would ‘not be reasonable’ to expect Britain to have been fully prepared for Covid, public health experts claimed today.

In the inquiry’s first call for evidence from witnesses, Professor Jimmy Whitworth and Dr Charlotte Hammer said the scale of the pandemic was ‘unprecedented’. 

It also had ‘unknown variables involved’, the pair added. 

The duo, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and University of Cambridge, respectively, told the second public hearing that the UK was instead ‘thought to be fairly well prepared’. 

In a report by Dr Hammer and Professor Whitworth, which had been submitted to the Inquiry, it listed a string of recommendations on how the UK could prepare better for another deadly virus. 

Yesterday the inquiry’s chief lawyer, Hugo Keith KC, presented the Inquiry with an extraordinarily complicated flow chart detailing the government’s chain of command in helping to protect Brits from future pandemics. The diagram, created by the Inquiry to reflect structures in 2019, links together more than 100 organisations involved in preparing the country for any future infectious threats

Public health experts Professor Jimmy Whitworth and Dr Charlotte Hammer, who were commissioned to write a report on infectious disease control and outbreak monitoring, were the first witnesses called to give evidence to the inquiry

They added: ‘The Covid epidemic was unprecedented in recent times, and it would not be reasonable to expect the UK to be fully prepared for a hypothetical epidemic of this size… with all the unknown variables involved.’

It comes after the Inquiry’s lead lawyer Hugo Keith KC said on Tuesday that the UK ‘might not have been well prepared at all’. 

Addressing Mr Keith, Professor Whitworth today also recalled how the early signs of coronavirus in the UK had chilling similarities with the SARS outbreak from 2002.

Read more: Go easy on us, Government lawyers beg Covid Inquiry: Probe asked not to use a ‘retroscope’ to judge mistakes and accept height of the pandemic was ‘akin to a war’

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a viral respiratory disease caused by a SARS-associated coronavirus.

It is the earlier, more deadly cousin of SARS-CoV-2, commonly known now as Covid, which first originated in China in 2002.

He told the inquiry: ‘By the middle of January 2020, people in the international public health community were aware this [Covid] was out of the ordinary.

‘By the end of January, people in public health – certainly in the UK – were aware it was an impending wave that was coming to the UK.’

‘And for those of us who had memory of SARS, the parallels with that were something that gave us shivers.’

Professor Whitworth also told the inquiry that coronaviruses had infected humans on a significant scale twice in the 21st century with SARS and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS) – a rare but severe respiratory illness.

It was ‘a reasonable bet’ prior to 2020 that another one might infect the human population, he added. 

Earlier today Government lawyers also urged the Inquiry to go easy on them over pandemic mistakes.

The Department of Health’s lawyer, Fiona Scolding KC, said it would not ‘necessarily have made the same decisions today with the benefit of hindsight’. 

She claimed the agency, headed up by Matt Hancock during the height of the crisis, was often faced with ‘hugely unpalatable options’. 

Meanwhile, James Strachan KC, representing the Cabinet Office, urged the inquiry to ‘remember this was a global pandemic’. 

Hugo Keith KC told the Inquiry yesterday that the nation was ‘taken by surprise’ by ‘significant aspects’ of the disease that has been recorded on 226,977 death certificates

As many as 70 witnesses will contribute to the first module on pandemic preparedness. 

Thursday’s session will hear from Professor David Heymann, an infectious disease epidemiology expert from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, as well as Professor David Alexander, an expert in emergency planning and management at University College London. 

Bruce Mann, who is leading the independent review of the UK Civil Contingencies Act and its supporting civil protection arrangements, will also give evidence. 

The first module will run for six weeks, until 20 July. The probe is not expected to conclude until 2026.

A separate Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry chaired by Lord Brailsford is looking at the pandemic response in devolved areas in Scotland.

Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford has said he and the Welsh government are fully committed to the inquiry, though they maintain that there is no need for Wales to hold its own inquiry.

Will Boris Johnson be quizzed? Who else will be involved? And how long will it take? EVERYTHING you need to know about the Covid inquiry

Why was the inquiry set up?

There has been much criticism of the UK government’s handling of the pandemic, including the fact the country seemed to lack a thorough plan for dealing with such a major event.

Other criticisms levelled at the Government include allowing elderly people to be discharged from hospitals into care homes without being tested, locking down too late in March 2020 and the failures of the multi-billion NHS test and trace.

Families of those who lost their loved ones to Covid campaigned for an independent inquiry into what happened.

Then Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was right that lessons are learned, announcing in May 2021 that an inquiry would be held.

Will Boris Johnson be quizzed? If so, when?

It’s not clear exactly when, or if, the former Prime Minister will be quizzed. No full list of witnesses has been published yet.

But given he was in charge of the Government for almost the entirety of the pandemic, his insights will prove central to understanding several aspects of the nation’s response.

If called forward as a witness, he would be hauled in front of the committee to give evidence.

What topics will the inquiry cover?

There are currently six broad topics, called modules, that will be considered by the inquiry.

Module 1 will examine the resilience and preparedness of the UK for a coronavirus pandemic.

Module 2 will examine decisions taken by Mr Johnson and his then team of ministers, as advised by the civil service, senior political, scientific and medical advisers, and relevant committees.

The decisions taken by those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will also be examined.

Module 3 will investigate the impact of Covid on healthcare systems, including on patients, hospitals and other healthcare workers and staff.

This will include the controversial use of Do Not Attempt Resuscitation notices during the pandemic.

Module 4 meanwhile will assess Covid vaccines and therapeutics. 

It will consider and make recommendations on a range of issues relating to the development of Covid vaccines and the implementation of the vaccine rollout programme in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. 

Modules 5 and 6 will open later this year, investigating government procurement and the care sector. 

Who is in charge of the inquiry?

Baroness Heather Hallett is in the charge of the wide-reaching inquiry. And she’s no stranger to taking charge of high profile investigations.

The 72-year-old ex-Court of Appeal judge was entrusted by Mr Johnson with chairing the long-awaited public probe into the coronavirus crisis.

Her handling of the inquiry will be subject to ferocious scrutiny.

Until Baroness Hallett was asked to stand aside, she was acting as the coroner in the inquest of Dawn Sturgess, the 44-year-old British woman who died in July 2018 after coming into contact with the nerve agent Novichok.

She previously acted as the coroner for the inquests into the deaths of the 52 victims of the July 7, 2005 London bombings.

She also chaired the Iraq Fatalities Investigations, as well as the 2014 Hallett Review of the administrative scheme to deal with ‘on the runs’ in Northern Ireland.

Baroness Hallett, a married mother-of-two, was nominated for a life peerage in 2019 as part of Theresa May’s resignation honours.

How long will it take?

When he launched the terms of the inquiry in May 2021, Mr Johnson said he hoped it could be completed in a ‘reasonable timescale’.

But, realistically, it could take years.

It has no formal deadline but is due to hold hearings across the UK until at least 2025. 

Interim reports are scheduled to be published before public hearings conclude by summer 2026.

The Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war began in 2009 but the final, damning document wasn’t released until 2016.

Meanwhile, the Bloody Sunday inquiry took about a decade.

Should a similar timescale be repeated for the Covid inquiry, it would take the sting out of any criticism of any Tory Government failings.

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