The Covid enquiry will give us some answers, but we must also learn the human lessons of the pandemic

I suppose it comes as no surprise that the much-anticipated government Covid enquiry is starting to expose all sorts of deep flaws in how the great global pandemic was handled.

Yesterday and today we’ve been hearing from former Health Secretary Matt Hancock, whom many have earmarked as one of the primary culprits in a bumbling decision-making process that resulted in the unnecessary deaths of so many family members, relatives and close friends.

Across this week there’s been a queue of senior political figures giving evidence and their own personal assessment of the way in which the situation was handled. Without exception the message seems to be that things could have been handled far better, and many more lives might not have been lost, if only individuals and government departments had communicated better, and worked together to solve the problem rather than pursuing personal and strategic agendas.

According to a BBC data team that has analysed Covid statistics from all sources, just under 227,000 people died in the UK with Covid-19 listed as one of the causes on their death certificate. This covers the three years to May 2023, when the World Health Organisation finally declared an end to the virus as a ‘global health emergency’. At the very least there were 208,000 deaths recorded above the expected number for the same period. In terms of percentages to population, the UK actually saw a smaller increase than the US, Poland and Italy, but fared worse than Spain, France and Germany. The overall death count in Norway, Sweden and new Zealand actually went down for the period, probably as a result of fast, hardline lockdowns reducing infectious contacts, accidents and other possible excess causes of death.

The UK Covid Enquiry, headed by the extremely capable and forensically focussed Baroness Hallett, will be hearing from expert witnesses and across the UK, as well as those most intimately involved in the decision-making processes. Relatives of the bereaved are also being given the opportunity to give testimony.

It’s anticipated that the enquiry will continue to hear evidence up to the summer of 2026, with the final report and conclusions published sometime thereafter. As with any enquiry of this nature, no-one will be blamed or found ‘guilty’, and no-one is obliged to take heed of any advice given. Understandably campaigners – such as The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice (BFJ) campaign group and the Runnymede think tank – have complained that the enquiry needs to go much further. In particular BFJ believes that ethnic communities need to be “placed firmly at the centre” of the inquiry, as the government’s own research has shown that ethnic minorities were significantly more likely to die with Covid-19.

Other activists and experts have pointed to areas where there were significant discrepancies and contradictions in the decision-making process, not least the differences in Covid responses and actions from the devolved legislatures of Scotland and Wales.

I recall from my own vivid experience of the pandemic the confusing, distressing and incredibly difficult anomaly of living in Wales, and working just 40 miles away in Manchester. At the height of the pandemic Wales went into a very wise complete national lockdown, whilst England dithered and prevaricated as the situation declined rapidly. At the time this left me with a job where I was expected to be present for work in Manchester each morning, while my local government was threatening to arrest me if I left the house!

Returning from a crowded city centre each day to confront the north Wales police who were quite literally patrolling the border stopping incomers, and wondering what manner of infection I might be bringing home to my family – knowing that thousands were dying from Covid – was not an experience that I’ll forget in my lifetime.

Across the UK at time there were countless employees struggling with the same dilemma of balancing being-at-work demands versus concern for family and self. Who will ever forget Boris Johnson’s “go to work, stay at home, go to work if you must, stay at home if you can, go to work if you must, stay at work, go home,” etc and all that nonsense?

In Wales the advice was clear – this thing is dangerous, so stay in your house unless it’s critical to go out. In England it was a literally fatal mish-mash of caveats, and in particular employees and employers were left to fight it out amongst themselves as to whether it was necessary for you to go physically in to work or not. Of course what legislators knew only too well was that for the vast majority of the population, a shift to home-based working was more than possible, but to let that particular genie out of the bottle even briefly would be to shatter decades of commuter servility and the centrality of ‘place’ and ‘subservience’ in employment.

Sadly, the rapidly climbing death toll made the change inevitable, and vast swathes of the working population made the change to what has become – as some legislators feared – the new world of home or hybrid working.

Some institutions railed at the threat to their established practices, typified by Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon who was one of the most vocal proponents of ‘return to the office or get sacked’ threat. You might think that with the huge salaries and unimaginable career and wealth opportunities being offered by the likes of Goldman, employees would be the first ones back on the bus, but nothing of it. In a recent survey of 700 US finance executives working for the country’s top four firms, an incredible 70% said they would quit their current job if they were ordered to return to the office five days a week. Of course saying it is one thing, actually dumping a highly-paid career is another, but the survey is a good indicator of the mood of employees globally post-pandemic, and actually is born out by the employment statistics, with most developed countries still looking for literally millions of previously employed tax payers who’ve ‘inexplicably’ dropped off the radar.

By contrast, global finance firm Deloitte – which has always been far more of an innovator rather than a dinosaur – recognised the post-pandemic shift to home working as an opportunity on all sorts of levels – from huge savings on eye-wateringly expensive city centre offices, to increased and more flexible employee commitments.

Over in Wales, where the economic infrastructure has long been predominantly rural, dispersed and diverse, the pandemic and a hard lockdown had a far lesser impact on businesses, and people’s daily lives. In England, where the economy has always been predominantly urban and concentrated, the centrality of the Covid problem – which should have been healthcare and the protection of the most vulnerable – became fatally skewed by fears for the established economic model, the possible consequences and ramifications of the establishment losing its grip over the workforce and even some legislators jumping on the commercial opportunities of the pandemic when the full force of their efforts and ingenuity ought to have been expended on saving lives.

Come the end of the enquiry, no doubt ministers and politicians will name their scapegoats, make their apologies, promise to do much better next time round – and carry on. A few lobby groups may have their say, but the real human stories of the Covid pandemic – and the way it has changed the world forever – will need to be compiled and preserved by other means, and most critically by those who of us who went through the experiences.

Why is this important? Because, for all that happened, the model of governance in this country in particular has been fundamentally unchanged by the pandemic, and old hierarchies are frantically but discretely trying to re-establish and re-assert themselves. Truth is, we cannot go back to the way things were before the pandemic, and neither should we. Covid came after 13 years of fiscal austerity and the systematic dismantling of the moral and spiritual fabric of the country. It’s dreadful impact will stay with most citizens for several generations to come, but the positive we ought to take is that it was a rare moment in time when everyone was forced to step back and ‘reset’ their view of life, and to think about what is or isn’t really important for the future.

As we navigate our way through the ‘new’ crises now emerging in society – such as climate change, immigration, poverty, marginalisation and exploitation – I pray that sooner rather than later we will come to learn that lasting solutions to even the most profound and complex of problems are to be found in the dignity and worth people, and not in the transience of material things.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian