Despite the bad blood between Johnson, Sunak and Hancock, they approached their testimonies at the UK Covid inquiry with noticeably similar tactics. These now politically estranged politicians resisted the temptation to throw each other under the bus despite ample opportunity to do so. Instead, they formed a united, defensive wall of ‘blame the scientists’ and ‘I can’t quite recall’. Given the legal jeopardy they face as more and more evidence emerges, it is clear why they put politics to one side as they testified under oath.
The drive to defend themselves
These days it’s rare for a politician to focus their public appearances on anything other than trying to warp public perception to fit their predetermined narrative. Public appearances have increasingly become an opportunity to unload a gruesomely tiresome rant on a captive public, as they try to convince us of their apparent successes and deflect us away from their equally gruesome failures. During their Covid inquiry testimonies, Johnson, Sunak and Hancock continued to partake in this post-truth politicking but there was quite clearly something else driving their performances.
It wasn’t the sudden presence of honest reflection as both the inquiry and the public had hoped for. Nor was it the gravity of the occasion; the distinguished opportunity of helping a nation grieve its losses and learn from its mistakes so that future generations can be saved from the traumas of the next pandemic. They gave such considerations only a momentary glance. Astonishingly, given the vanity of Johnson, Sunak and Hancock, their performances weren’t even about saving face, at least not primarily. No, they were more focused on saving their own skins.
Their appearance at the inquiry did not provide any new evidence to argue for their innocence. The evidence is clear. The truth was unambiguous – the scale of their failures was truly monumental. Instead, we witnessed those who led the UK through the pandemic fervently, perhaps even desperately, trying to defend themselves.
The fear of prosecution
None were more desperate than Johnson. At times he trembled with frustration and rage but also, at times, with a palpable fear. At one point he even tried to force a tear for the fallen. For someone who values himself amongst greatness and far above the rest of us as Johnson does, such grovelling for mercy was a sure sign of just how much jeopardy he was (and still is) facing. Rest assured, as he sat there recounting the events of 2020 and 2021 to the inquiry, he was acutely aware that the stakes are high.
Johnson, the guy who doesn’t do detail, likely went through months of preparation for this appearance. He has known since the vaccines took effect in early 2021, and shifted the face of the pandemic irrevocably, that his ‘let it rip’ strategy was not merely wrong but also quite possibly criminal. He needed to, by all means, avoid admitting under oath and to the world that this was the strategy he pursued. This was likely his primary focus as he gave evidence to the inquiry.
Failing to provide his WhatsApp messages from the crucial period at the start of the inquiry typifies the challenge Johnson faced. On the one hand, failing to supply the messages will be viewed by the public as a sure sign of guilt. On the other, the messages would likely effectively provide a written confession of Johnson’s determination to ‘power through’ and ‘take it on the chin’. The option with the least legal jeopardy was not to provide the messages. After all, there is a big difference between appearing guilty and actually being found guilty.
Hancock faces similar legal peril. He made few preparations during February 2020, despite knowing the pandemic was on its way. He authorised the abandonment of community testing and ceased community contact and trace in early March (compounded by his efforts to let the private sector take over both only a month or two later). And then there is the smoking gun of wilfully discharging infected Covid-19 patients into care homes. Professor Dame Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England at the time, may well have provided some cover for this, but Hancock had no real basis to authorise an action that had no other conceivable outcome bar the deaths of those most vulnerable to the virus.
Sunak’s culpability seems more limited but still very real. His Eat Out to Help Out scheme would have been okay (from Sunak’s current perspective) if it had been agreed, or even advised upon, by those on the public health side. It wasn’t. He is now in some way responsible, to some degree, for wilfully exposing the public to the virus despite the articulated risks of doing so.
Sunak failed to put forward the economic consequences of what an unmitigated national pandemic would have had on the lives and livelihoods of ordinary people. It was his responsibility to inform Cabinet of the economic ramifications of the pandemic. Yet seemingly, without any actual economic analysis, he advocated for the same ‘let it rip’ approach as Johnson. The ensuing delays in taking steps to control the virus undoubtedly cost the UK economy greatly, as well as costing more of the very lives he was charged with protecting.
Johnson still has the greatest culpability here. His very clear position of allowing the virus to move through the population in a bid to get us through the pandemic quicker (i.e., herd immunity strategy) was without basis and likely shaped the entire pandemic response. No documented advice supporting such a policy has been seen during the inquiry. As such, what defense could Johnson possibly have for allowing (perhaps one could even say, willing) millions of people to get infected and thousands to die for some theoretical benefit to the economy that never even materialised? There is no defense. So it is better for Johnson to lose his WhatsApp messages and fail to remember the events clearly.
United to avoid prosecution
Hancock could have easily laid much of the blame levied at him at Johnson’s feet. He had kept the PM informed of the emerging pandemic and had even requested to convene an earlier COBR meeting in January 2020. Johnson (or his team) had rejected the request and, despite clearly knowing about the looming pandemic, had chosen to do very little to protect the public. Here, Hancock could have set out a relatively untouchable position, ‘I escalated it, but the PM decided not to act’. He didn’t.
Equally, once Johnson began chairing COBR meetings in early March, Hancock could have simply responded to the questions about the calamitous delay in taking action between March 13th and March 23rd by saying, ‘at this point it was entirely the PM’s decision’. Largely, he avoided this defence.
Sunak too had little to gain politically by defending or deflecting the barrage of testimonies painting Johnson’s No. 10 as dysfunctional and ineffective, or indeed the Cabinet Office’s lack of leadership that almost certainly materially contributed to the UK’s dismal pandemic response. This was Sunak’s prime opportunity to subdue Johnson’s hopes of a political comeback by simply agreeing with the consensus view that No. 10, under Johnson’s leadership, was (even ‘a bit’) chaotic. Again, he didn’t.
Equally, Johnson could have more firmly placed the noose around Sunak’s neck regarding Eat Out to Help Out or indeed could have highlighted that Sunak failed to get the economic strategy right – he pushed to delay putting in the very measures to control Covid that would have helped protect the economy. Sunak got it wrong. Odd how Johnson didn’t bring this to the inquiry’s and the public’s attention. Sunak, after all, according to Johnson’s allies, triggered Johnson’s early exit from the top job. Here then was an opportunity for Johnson to dish out some retribution while also setting himself up for his political comeback. Instead, Johnson was careful to avoid overt admissions of Sunak’s failures. He focused on how difficult the time was, how they followed the scientists, and how, broadly speaking, the systems in place worked as they should.
Despite the potential political and public perception gains to be had, they generally did not deflect blame onto each other and resisted highlighting each other’s gross inadequacies. They could not let the politics get in the way of their primary objective – avoiding prosecution. Better to answer ‘I don’t recall’ than to add to the mounting evidence of criminal negligence with a confession under oath and in front of the nation.
Even now they refuse to help the nation
Their lack of cooperation with the Covid inquiry is not without consequence. Yes, there is, and should be, a reputational hit with the public and the inquiry. But, more than this, in frustrating the primary role of the inquiry, to help prevent such a disastrous response from happening again, they have yet again abandoned the nation for their own self-interests.
Their united and closed front meant that the inquiry gleaned little of use from their appearances. The better response for both the public and inquiry would have been to take a more reflective approach of ‘in hindsight, we could have done this better’ or ‘I should have realised this or that’. Instead, Johnson came across as unrepentant and unambitious, content with mediocrity; ‘sorry, but only because the virus was horrible’. It is remarkable (from a public perception perspective) that Johnson, in his testimony, chose to give more fuel to his growing legacy of ‘he just didn’t care about us’. But within the legal jeopardy that Johnson faced, he just couldn’t find the room to spin his actions into a more palatable narrative.
Sunak also took a reputational hit. In fairness, Sunak appeared more grown-up in his performance than Johnson or Hancock, but the lasting memory for many is that he ‘couldn’t recall’ and wasn’t too sure. This, of course, played into the narrative that Sunak lacks courage and integrity. He could have described the inadequacies in the decision-making, the carnage in No. 10 and the flip-flopping approach of the PM. It was a perfect opportunity for Sunak to set out in detail the changes he has made, or is going to make, to the systems and processes to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. This would have made Sunak appear both helpful to the inquiry and would have likely garnished some much-needed respect from the public. Again, he didn’t – the legal jeopardy in admitting there were failures was simply too great.
Hancock was a bit more useful to the inquiry. He had thought long and hard about the pandemic response, studied the evidence, and got to grips with the timeline. He managed to effectively convey that he was pushing for an early response back in January and that the Department of Health and Social Care had taken the threat seriously. Unfortunately for him, the very apparent conclusion from this was that he was grossly inadequate as a leader. Despite having identified the threat early enough, he had neither the skills nor intelligence to lead an effective response.
Will they face charges?
It seems highly unlikely that decisions taken by Ministers in good faith during the pandemic regardless of the number of deaths will lead to any form of prosecution. Ultimately, the defence of this being a ‘never-encountered event’ provides a lot of cover for even the most incompetent of Ministers. However, were it to materialise that there was a clear intention to permit infection and death (i.e. to ‘let it rip’) without any clear basis or tangible public benefit for doing so, then the question of culpability comes to the fore.
We will explore what charges Johnson, Sunak or Hancock could face with legal experts in future instalments. On the face of it, misconduct in public office may be quite fitting.
The public had a reasonable expectation that Ministers in the top three jobs would go forward with the primary intention of protecting life. There is also a reasonable expectation for the Government to provide a certain level of protection (i.e., take action) against such a national threat. Evidence so far suggests that these reasonable expectations were not met.
Johnson’s position in February and March (at least) was to allow the virus to move through the population and generate herd immunity through infection. In the absence of any documented advice, modelling or analysis to support such a position, and the fact that this approach was an international outlier, it is difficult to see a defence that the reasonable expectation to protect the public was met. The same can be said about care homes, PPE, NHS capacity, and income support.
And it is not merely a matter of justice or accountability. The loss of trust that has likely ensued has been consequential not just to the pandemic response this time, but also, if left uncorrected, to future pandemic responses. Trust is a key commodity during not just a public health crisis, but any national crisis. To leave these egregious breaches of public trust unanswered would likely have profound consequences for public safety going forward. As such, it is difficult to see how it is not in the public interest to litigate.
Arguably, one could have made the case that such litigation would not be necessary to protect the public from future national emergencies had Johnson, Sunak and Hancock demonstrated to the Covid inquiry that they recognised the points of failure and would act differently next time. They didn’t. This is particularly relevant for those who remain in posts that would take leadership roles in future national emergencies, such as the Prime Minister. If, by failing to engage with the spirit of the Covid inquiry, Johnson, Hancock and Sunak have weakened its impact to such a degree that we remain in the same situation as before – with the same mindsets making the same decisions, then what other choice is there to protect the public other than pursuing prosecution?
Putting to one side the irony of Johnson, Hancock and Sunak’s stonewalling the inquiry to avoid prosecution, now making it almost a necessity to seek prosecution, there is plenty of evidence yet to be heard. Of the modules to follow, Module 4 – Procurement, may provide the clearest case for prosecution. In this module, we will hear about PPE, testing contracts, and the infamous Test & Trace service. While it can be argued that the failure to protect the public falls within the protection of a ministerial office, to wilfully reappropriate life-saving pandemic funds purely in the name of profit-making seems very much outside the scope of ministerial duties and open to prosecution.
It is, of course, unreasonable to expect Ministers to get all the big calls right during such a novel pandemic. There were many competing interests and decisions often had to be made with limited information and against significant time pressure. As such, it is right for those leading the pandemic response to be granted some room to explain their decisions. It would be wise of them to take the opportunity fully and with insight.
For most of us, we can probably forgive decisions made in our best interests that turned out to be wrong. What I think most of us will find difficult to forgive are the decisions that were made not for the public good but solely for Ministers’ own personal, ideological or political interests. Many of us will also find it difficult to forgive those leaders who fail to contribute properly to ensuring such a catastrophic Government response is not realised again. On both counts, so far, Sunak, Johnson and Hancock have failed.