June 19, 2024

Another day, a fresh chapter in the Covid inquiry – and another public servant having their diary read back to them in a public forum that looks like the world’s most under-embellished anxiety dream. Sir Patrick Vallance’s contemporaneous notes reveal a man deeply worried about everything: public health, prime ministerial “flip-flopping”; scientists being used as “human shields”; “bonkers” cabinet WhatsApp messages in which Boris Johnson is “obsessed with older people accepting their fate”. He seems to keep a relatively cool head and his “brain-dump” doesn’t sound self-serving or hysterical, so he’s got off relatively lightly compared with others who’ve had their noses rubbed in their WhatsApp ignominy. But you nevertheless can’t help but mourn the road not taken. The only really sensible response to that grim period – particularly for scientists who are all over cause and effect, facts, evidence and whatnot, and faced with a prime minister who floated “whisky and a revolver” as a plausible public health solution – would have been to stage a coup. And none of them did. So, sure, that is a shame, but beyond it, none but those elected have anything to be ashamed of.

The really depressing thing about this inquiry is the absolute certainty that, if a fresh pandemic arrived tomorrow, nothing would be any better, and many things would be worse. The inequality and poverty that Michael Marmot and Clare Bambra highlighted as contributory factors would be, respectively, worse and deeper. The NHS would be in more desperate straits, the pandemic preparedness that the austerians wound down would not have been restored, and Downing Street would still be full of petty, inadequate, callous politicians.

The argument for holding an inquiry is sound, and it would feel disrespectful to everyone still paying a price for the pandemic if it didn’t happen in a timely manner. But if it’s painful for participants to hear their private misgivings aired in public, it’s painful for all of us to get this ringside seat on a failing state, when, to quote Theresa May, who by comparison looks like Solomon, nothing has changed. In other words, I’m not wishing for a slower inquiry; I’m wishing for a faster general election.

Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

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