July 13, 2023 - 5:50pm

Politicians provide the “capacity to ask the ‘daft laddie’ question”, levelling up and housing secretary Michael Gove said on Thursday afternoon during an appearance at the Covid inquiry. The cabinet minister was speaking about the Government’s preparation for the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as its cooperation with scientific experts to devise lockdown and pandemic management policies, in a hearing in which he also stated that “politicians are amateurs.”

When we are engaging with professionals and experts, what we bring is not deep subject expertise. What we bring is the capacity to ask the ‘daft laddie’ question,” Gove said. He suggested that this ignorance can be a virtue. “Sometimes it is only when someone asks that question that we find out that the emperor has no clothes,” he said, “or the pandemic preparedness plan has a huge hole in the middle.”

During the lockdown period, Gove was an advocate for more stringent measures, but has since rowed back somewhat on this position. In the hearing room on Thursday, he claimed that “ultimately the pandemic that occurred was not a flu pandemic. It was one for which we were unprepared because few Western nations, if any Western nations, had anticipated the particular type of pandemic that Covid-19 was.” 

Gove hinted at the pervasive influence of groupthink both in Whitehall and within the scientific community, with these groups combining to dictate Covid measures from early 2020. “There is a danger that people within a civil service hierarchy, or within a political culture, do not want to seem awkward,” he said. “They will not wish to be the person questioning their superior in front of another.” To tackle this problem, the levelling up secretary said that “ministers should be trained” in countering scientific groupthink, in preparation for future epidemics. 

Gove even hinted at the possibility of considering origin theories for the virus which go against popular consensus, and that ministers should be briefed about these rather than simply accepting a particular, albeit majority, viewpoint. “Most people believe that this virus emerged in the wet market, but some suggest it might be a lab leak,” he said. “Where is the evidence? We need to have a certain degree of tolerance for the fact that we can’t have certainty.”

The “lab leak theory” has gone from a fringe position to one considered, even if not fully endorsed, by UK cabinet ministers, American federal departments and Chinese government doctors. Although Gove has not commented directly on the origins of the virus before, former health secretary Matt Hancock suggested that a Chinese lab leak was to blame in his memoir of the pandemic, published at the end of last year.

On Thursday the levelling up secretary, who has twice run for the position of Conservative Party leader, credited Brexit preparation for enabling the UK to be more ready when confronted with the threat of Covid. “I would argue the skills acquired, honed and refined during EU exit prep helped us not only to have an organisational system better at dealing with the process,” he suggested, “but [also] to have a cadre of people who’d been through an intense process that enhanced the ability to respond.” Further, “preparation for the EU exit in and of itself was some of the best preparation that we could have undergone for any future crisis.”

is UnHerd’s Assistant Editor, Newsroom.