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The UK Covid Inquiry is asking the wrong questions

He made the rules, he broke the rules.

December 2, 2023 - 3:00pm

This week the UK Covid Inquiry was again reminded of one of the central ironies of the Covid years: politicians who made the rules broke the rules. Yet a second great irony has also developed: these same politicians believe lockdown rules should have been implemented earlier. Both obfuscate a central problem. 

Such rule-breaking has been a regular feature of Covid decision-makers from Boris Johnson’s Partygate fiasco to Dominic Cummings’ infamous road trip to Neil Ferguson’s encounters with a woman, outside his household, in an ‘open marriage’. This week it was the turn of Matt Hancock, the ex-health secretary, who admitted that his affair with an aide in 2021, in violation of his own social distancing rules, may have affected public confidence. 

Well, what I’d say is that the lesson for the future is very clear. And it is important that those who make the rules abide by them, and I resigned in order to take accountability for my failure to do so.
- Matt Hancock

Hancock resigned in June 2021 after footage emerged of what he has previously called his “human error” of “falling in love”. Michael Gove was also questioned this week for exempting hunting from the ‘rule of six’ after WhatsApp messages suggested it was for political brownie points. 

Yet the media framing and questioning by the inquiry barristers appear more concerned with provoking apologies and fake remorse. Hancock, Gove, Johnson, Cummings, Ferguson and many more have done so publicly.

The ‘unequivocal’ rules to social behaviour mandated by the government touched every aspect of British society: sex, worship, protest, playing, working, schooling, socialising, attending funerals and marriages, elderly care visits — the list goes on. Over 100 new laws were passed without any meaningful parliamentary involvement over 763 days, leading to over 100,000 criminal offences. 

Human rights barrister Adam Wagner has described the alarming centralisation of power at Downing Street as a “Covid politburo.” This group quarantined the whole country three times and micromanaged British society in an ever-changing patchwork of intrusive rules and safety guidelines. Despite increases in authoritarian attitudes among the public, many appear immune to questioning this unprecedented infringements in basic civil liberties.

Yet more alarming is the wholly unsatisfactory antidote that easily absolves the political class of responsibility: early lockdown. This ‘lockdown doctrine’ was continued this week by Matt Hancock, who claimed an earlier lockdown in March could have prevented 90% of deaths in the first wave, or more than 30,000 lives, and tougher action in autumn could have prevented the closure of schools in early 2021. This is hard to believe, although others such as Michael Gove broadly agreed: the country was “too slow” to call lockdown. New evidence also emerged, from the diary of Sir Patrick Vallence, that Boris Johnson was calling for greater fines in autumn 2020: “We need a lot more punishments and a lot more closing down,” he reportedly stated. 

In this account, those responsible for making the rules that they broke cannot publicly reject the rules. That would mean the national sacrifice was for naught. Rule-breaking does come with political costs. But these can be paid with reasonable public apology for “being human”. 

But this leaves the more important questions aside: how truly effective and necessary was the Covid rule regime? And that is exactly the line of questioning many in the Conservative party political class want to avoid.  


Kevin Bardosh is a research professor and Director of Research for Collateral Global, a UK-based charity dedicated to understanding the collateral impacts of Covid policies worldwide.

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Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
7 months ago

The rules were broken because it wasn’t humanly possible to live like that. And many people were in far more trying circumstances than those ministers and officials: cooped up in apartments with no outdoor space, trying to work with children at home, or stuck on their own with no personal interaction at all. Only white collar jobs could be done from home, so workplace social interaction continued, making some spread inevitable. And as soon as things opened up (as they always had to) case numbers went up, making the whole process a vicious circle until Omicron meant they had to “let it rip” anyway. Lockdown was only politically possible in the short run by paying people not to work, and running up humongous levels of public debt to do so. It was all garbage.

Last edited 7 months ago by Stephen Walsh
Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
7 months ago

It is a total waste of time to be taking evidence from participants in imposing lockdown. Of course they will claim it should have been implemented more vigorously and earlier just as Stalin might have justified the gulag archipelago by claiming that the paradise of communism would have been achieved if only he had imprisoned more earlier and for longer. No ideologue is going to admit his theory is totally shot through with error.

What is needed is an analysis by independent (ie ideologically uncommitted to lockdown) experts regarding the benefits and costs of lockdown and comparisons with countries that approached things differently. The total knock on effects of draconian but ineffective lockdown needs to be calculated including deaths and ruined lives caused by the policy. The fact that politicians, media figures and others calling for and promoting lockdown were all caught out flouting the rules (and many more escaped detection for their infractions) simply highlighted the fact that it was humanly an impractical and destructive policy.

The UK enquiry is nothing more than an obscenely costly wasteful farce asking all the wrong questions that should be shut down but which will rumble down and come to the wrong conclusion. It simply highlights what is wrong with the country’s whole wasteful and inefficient approach to public projects.

FacRecte NilTime
FacRecte NilTime
7 months ago

Poring over how poorly a bad idea was implemented does not stop it from being a bad idea. The human and economic costs of lockdown were huge. And the unprecedented and virtually unchallenged assault on our fundamental liberties even worse.

Arkadian Arkadian
Arkadian Arkadian
7 months ago

I really do not understand if the “inquiry” more than anything else has been tasked with justifying the lockdowns. Has any question challenging the government orthodoxy been asked?

Alex Carnegie
Alex Carnegie
7 months ago

Inquiries with 20/20 hindsight are bad enough but so far we appear to getting one with 10/10 hindsight which risks being even less productive. There needed perhaps to be an earlier inquiry – by say the Royal Society i.e. rigorous minded and impartial physicists – to clarify what is clear and what is not about the scientific background. My suspicion is that the lockdowns had only a marginal effect and that each Covid wave rose and declined more or less at a natural rate. The lawyers – who seem scientifically illiterate with Lady Hallett admitting she even struggled with graphs – appear to be proceeding on the different assumption that the timing of the lockdowns was all important. Without resolving this and similar basic issues it is hard to see how the Inquiry can come to the sensible overall conclusions. I am sure they will document the bureaucratic confusion and infighting – to the joy of future historians – but otherwise they risk labouring long and hard to produce an irrelevant mouse. Maybe we will be positively surprised.

Peter B
Peter B
7 months ago

Nothing I have seen from the reporting of this “inquiry” shows any sign of attempting to find out how we could do this all better in future – and avoid future lockdowns.
It’s just seems to be an exercise in trying to dodge responibility and allocate blame on others – “blame storming” as I once heard it described.
As others have said, the entire exercise seems to be a pointless waste of time and money which has value only for politicians aiming to profit from the theare, bureaucrats for whom it creates more work and lawyers.
Shut it down.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
7 months ago

Hardly any MPs spoke against or voted against lockdown, so all are responsible for imposing the rules. Hence, in addition to the article’s mention of transgressions by Tories, we should also be reminded of the opposition law-breakers.
Stephen Kinnock was first out of the blocks, followed closely by Khalid Mahmood. Corbyn seems to have ignored the rules completely. Rosie Duffield. Not to mention the Lord Mayor of Leicester and the Deputy Mayor of Liverpool.

Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
7 months ago

Oddly for UnHerd the headline (sub headline) says more than the article

If most politicians broke their own rules, was it really the right approach?

obviously not!

Martin Sewell
Martin Sewell
7 months ago

Politicians broke their own rules. In other words, the revealed preferences of those with access to the data imply that the rules were not worth following.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
7 months ago

The problem with the lockdown approach is it was very proscriptive. A one-size-fits-all set of rules was unsuitable for many situations people found themselves in. The evidence for this fact is the rule-breaking and the admission that Downing Street could not comply with the rules on any day.
The advantage of the Swedish approach is it was less proscriptive, with people told in general terms what they needed to do to avoid catching Covid. The benefits of this approach are:
In most cases, individuals and organizations develop similar or better ways of keeping themselves clear of the disease. This positive impact offsets possibly lower compliance, as most people will make the right decisions.There is much less collateral damage and expenditures.It enables the government to focus on the people at risk and running the NHS, avoiding many other mistakes.

Last edited 7 months ago by UnHerd Reader
William Murphy
William Murphy
7 months ago

Sadly no one seems to have asked Matt Hancock about that unforgettable day when he publicly threatened to lock us all up 24/7 unless we complied better with the lockdown rules. He did not explain how the country was supposed to survive. Or what mandate he had for universal imprisonment.

j watson
j watson
7 months ago

We are coming to the end of Module 2 of the Inquiry (Political decision-making & governance). There are 4 more Modules to go.
It’s not clear to me where the questions the Author poses will be further considered but we are but 30% of the way through.
What has emerged is that voluntary measures were tried for a week in March 20 but the limited evidence suggested to politicians and scientists it wasn’t having the effect needed and the public were bewildered. Hence decision to move a week later to full Lockdown. One can have some sympathy with this for LD1 as events outpaced knowledge.
Whether regardless the R rate would have dropped anyway and quickly enough without LD rules is of course difficult to assess. Sweden offers some evidence but a v different country.
What does seem to have emerged from Module 2 is a general consensus that i) LDs were necessary given the resilience of health services was v limited ii) were probably longer than necessary because implemented late iii) and LD 2 & 3 could and should have done more to protect the ‘other harms’ arising from a LD. Whether this is how Hallett sees it we’ll have to wait.
Module 3 should provide some further context and challenge – the impact on Health services.

Last edited 7 months ago by j watson
Alex Carnegie
Alex Carnegie
7 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Whoops. Mispost.

Last edited 7 months ago by Alex Carnegie
Gerard A
Gerard A
7 months ago
Reply to  j watson

The other modules don’t seem to give any scope for investigating the rationale or effectiveness of mandatory lockdowns and other NPIs.
Active modules
  1 Resilience and preparedness
2 Core UK decision-making and political governance
       Scotland
       Wales
       Northern Ireland
  3 Impact of Covid-19 pandemic on healthcare systems in the 4 nations of the UK
  4 Vaccines and therapeutics
  5 Procurement
Future modules
  6.Care sector
I maybe wrong but I suspect Module 3 will be very narrowly focussed on health services at the peak on the pandemic, not the long term effects.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
7 months ago
Reply to  Gerard A

So there’s not one module devoted to impact of NPIs. What’s even the point?

j watson
j watson
7 months ago
Reply to  Gerard A

Yes it’s not clear is it.
I hope Module 3 covers more than the peak as the implications are still being felt and will be for some time. That said I can’t see how LD1 at least was avoidable and as evidence thus far seems to conclude there were no good options.

Doug Mccaully
Doug Mccaully
7 months ago

Sometimes difficult to follow his argument but If he’s asking why there isn’t more examination of the view that lockdowns weren’t necessary, then we should get some insight when Boris and Rishi are questioned, since their scepticism of lockdowns led to them being botched or sabotaged.