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Two volunteers draw hearts onto the National Covid Memorial Wall

Last week, Matt Hancock, who was health secretary throughout the Covid-19 pandemic gave evidence to the UK Covid Inquiry. The turn of Boris Johnson will follow. There are many out there who are following this inquiry with keen interest. I have no such interest in the outcome of this inquiry, or even in following the evidence for two reasons. 

First, in May 2021, I noted that this inquiry “could possibly end up being an exercise in which journalists, opposition parties and academics criticise the government that was in power, but with the benefit of hindsight. Of course, the right decisions should have been made and these ‘right’ decisions are now obvious, but they were not obvious at the time”. One of the problems with this inquiry is that this has become a trial led by lawyers, but who is on trial? And yet, for Covid-19, all living in or visiting the UK just before or during the pandemic have some degree of responsibility for the outcome. This includes everyone who engaged in activities that potentially contributed to the spread of the virus. 

Second, one of the arguments made in Living with Pandemics, the book that resulted from the Covid-19 research I started in March 2020, is that the one thing that we know about all pandemics is that each will be different. This is a critical point. The UK Covid-19 Inquiry is searching for those to blame, and really the point of it should be to have a very rapid evaluation of the broad outcomes of the UK response to the pandemic to identify any policy areas that require enhancement. Such an inquiry should take about a month and the policy learning points should have been implemented in 2022 or even in 2021. It is important to appreciate that the next pandemic might already have commenced, or it might commence tomorrow. 

Hindsight is wonderful; poor decisions can be identified, and the correct decisions are obvious. For Covid-19, the point is that decisions made at the time were considered to be appropriate based on available information. At the time, very few people, and perhaps no one, was able to imagine a better set of realistic interventions.

Professor John Bryson, Department of Strategy and International Business

There are three critical learning points that come from all governments and their responses to Covid-19. First, all governments responded in varying ways that reflected differences in the national context. There is little point in undertaking a comparative analysis of different outcomes. Every country needs to prepare for pandemics based on its own circumstances.

Second, one of the criticisms of the UK response to the pandemic is that there was no strategy. Every pandemic will require a process of ongoing agile improvisation by government, businesses, third-sector organisations, individuals, and households. This should be improvisation within a structure, but even the structure might have to change. Journalists, opposition parties and academics will criticise this type of reactive improvised approach to policy formulation and intervention, but the alternative is to impose a very inflexible policy response. China adopted this approach, and the outcome was hardly as satisfactory as the UK experience.

Third, there is only one way of preventing the UK from experiencing another pandemic. This involves significant investment by the World Health Organisation and the UN in a global infrastructure intended to spot potential pandemics. Once identified, the UK government should immediately stop all people movement to and from the country and impose a lockdown. For Covid-19, all ports and airports should have been closed on 1 January 2020. But no government would be able or willing to implement this strategy. Journalists would have a field day and rapidly there would be legal challenges. The outcome is that the UK will experience another pandemic, and next time the virus could be much more virulent with death rates of over 60%.

There are two other points to consider. On 7 May 2020, I published a piece under the title ‘Covid-19, Institutional Failure and the British Media’. The British media is covering the UK Covid Inquiry extremely closely and searching for people to blame. Nevertheless, the British media should acknowledge that journalists also need to be held accountable for the role they played in shaping Covid-19 outcomes. The first duty of the media during a national emergency should be to inform, with the focus on trying to reduce the impacts of the crisis. The UK media was too focused on calling out politicians and one outcome was that reporting contributed to confusion.

On the other hand, the UK Covid-19 Inquiry is a distraction from one of the primary challenges facing all governments – how to prepare for the next pandemic? The answer is that preparation is possible and desirable. Nevertheless, the government’s response to the next pandemic must still revolve around improvisation based on balancing trade-offs between different types of intervention.

Hindsight is wonderful; poor decisions can be identified, and the correct decisions are obvious. For Covid-19, the point is that decisions made at the time were considered to be appropriate based on available information. At the time, very few people, and perhaps no one, was able to imagine a better set of realistic interventions. Overall, the UK government’s response to Covid-19 was appropriate. The outcome could have been very much worse and only very slightly better.