DOMINIC LAWSON: The Covid Inquiry has cost us £100 million already

DOMINIC LAWSON: The Covid Inquiry has cost us £100 million already. I fear it will end up satisfying very few – except for the lawyers running the show

Roll up, roll up, for the great Covid-19 Inquiry show. This week, the star performers will be Sir Patrick Vallance, Sir Christopher Whitty, Sir Jonathan Van-Tam and Dame Jenny Harries.

These scientific and medical leaders of the response to the pandemic were all awarded those honorific titles for their work during the height of that crisis. So it would be embarrassing if the Inquiry were to find they had got anything badly wrong.

But that is not the pattern of the proceedings so far.

The medical experts have, on the whole, been treated somewhat sycophantically by the inquiry’s chief counsel, Hugo Keith — the same brilliant lawyer who has wallowed repeatedly in the ‘revolting language’ (as he put it) of some of the political actors, revealed in their WhatsApp cache given to the inquiry.

Britain’s Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance attends a press conference to outline the Government’s new long-term Covid-19 plan in 2022

Britain’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England Jonathan Van-Tam speaks during a news conference at 10 Downing Street in 2021

When Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Sage advisory group, told the inquiry how he had battled to persuade the politicians to take tougher measures to protect the public in March 2020, the KC told him unctuously: ‘That is very much to your credit, if I may say so.’

Yet on March 13, Professor Edmunds had gone on Channel 4 to defend the then policy of pursuing ‘herd immunity’, and ridiculed the idea of locking down immediately or even declaring a public health emergency. The inquiry lawyers seem to have been unaware of that, or, if they were aware, clearly didn’t think it would be helpful to mention it.

It will be interesting, in this light, to see how Professor Dame Jenny Harries is treated when she gives evidence on Thursday. The former Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England had been key to the decision in March 2020 to stop all community testing, insisting it was ‘not an appropriate intervention’ — before later deciding it was essential.

Harries had also advised the public not to wear face masks, on the grounds that they could ‘trap the virus’ and thus infect the wearer — but then said they should be mandatory. And in December 2021, she claimed that the new Omicron variant was ‘the most significant threat we’ve had since the start of the pandemic’.

Whitty advised the Government along similar lines, but the then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, persuaded by Rishi Sunak, his Chancellor, rejected the advice to lock down once again.

The politicians were vindicated: Omicron turned out to be far less virulent, not least because we had the vaccines by then.

But will Harries and Whitty be confronted with that this week? Unlikely, since the inquiry appears uninterested in the balance between protection of lives at all costs and the economic price involved.

Thus, when a witness was asked about the downside of a mooted measure, the inquiry chairman, Lady Hallett, broke in: ‘I’m sorry, I’m not following. If there’s a possible benefit, what’s the downside?’

At the outset of this part of the inquiry, she declared: ‘The need for me to reach conclusions and make recommendations to reduce suffering in future, when the next pandemic hits the UK, is pressing.’

Good point. But her inquiry is not scheduled even to finish taking evidence until some time in 2026 — and who knows when she will be ready to deliver her report?

Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Sage advisory group, told the inquiry how he had battled to persuade the politicians to take tougher measures to protect the public in March 2020

It will be interesting to see how Professor Dame Jenny Harries (pictured) is treated when she gives evidence on Thursday

If speed is of the essence, a statutory judge-led inquiry is the last method you would choose (although that is what Boris Johnson did choose). It is also staggeringly expensive.

We found this out from the Saville Inquiry into the deaths of 13 people in Derry at the hands of the British Army on ‘Bloody Sunday’: January 30, 1972. It took 12 years and cost £200 million. The lead QC in the Inquiry was paid £4.5million: his opening speech alone lasted 42 days.

Eighteen other lawyers got more than £1 million, while two firms of solicitors, one in London, the other in Belfast, received £26 million between them. And still a full trial of any Paratrooper involved has yet to take place.

Lady Hallett’s inquiry has already burnt through at least £100 million and its ultimate cost is almost certain to exceed that of the Saville Inquiry (the current record-holder).

Time is money: but so much more so when an inquiry is run by lawyers. The Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War was not, but it had perhaps the most complex and politically charged task of all: to investigate every aspect of a war that lasted for eight years in a vast country. Chilcot took seven years to report, but its total cost was just a little over £13 million.

As one of the Chilcot committee told me: ‘We all agreed to be paid at Civil Service rates, and not even the top band, at that. And we didn’t employ a battery of lawyers.’

He believes that the great attention given by the Covid-19 Inquiry to the foul language of politicians’ and advisers’ WhatsApp messages ‘is what you would expect when barristers are running the show. They love to get into the headlines, and know this is how to do it’.

There were, of course, bereaved families connected with the Chilcot Inquiry: the relatives of British soldiers killed in the Iraq War. Many of these families had wanted a judge-led process, and feared the inquiry, a five-strong committee dominated by military historians and retired diplomats, would be some sort of Establishment whitewash.

Far from it. When Sir John Chilcot reported in 2016, his conclusions were widely described as ‘damning’, ‘crushing’ and ‘devastating’. Tony Blair’s press conference immediately afterwards saw the normally mellifluous ex-PM almost lost for words, and he looked shattered.

I would be amazed if anything as clear as that emerges from Lady Hallett’s report into Covid-19. Whenever that does happen, I suspect the whole process will have satisfied very few — except the lawyers.

The correct apostrophe might not be up your street 

The Apostrophe Protection Society is celebrating a rare victory: last week, residents of St Mary’s Terrace, in the village of Twyford, Hampshire, won a battle to force the local council to rescind its decision to rename their street ‘St Marys Terrace’.

The campaign to restore its apostrophe was started by a retired teacher, Oliver Gray — described as ‘passionate about punctuation’ — and then backed by the Lib Dem councillor representing the village, Tony Bronk.

On the other side stood the council leader, Martin Tod, who had set out the official position: ‘Clear and unambiguous street names are vital for postal and other delivery services and also the emergency services, and punctuation can make that more difficult, particularly with modern computer systems.’

Eventually, he backed down, and there is rejoicing across the land. But, and I speak from personal experience, Mr Tod did have a point. Our own house has a name with an apostrophe in it, and this has often caused problems when I have filled out online forms.

Frequently, I will get the message ‘address not recognised’. But when we applied to be a host under the Homes for Ukraine refugee scheme, the government website just declared: ‘Error.’ Which gave us not a clue.

The campaign to restore its apostrophe was started by a retired teacher, Oliver Gray, pictured 

Fortunately, our neighbour is a computer-coding professional, and he advised: ‘Take out the apostrophe in the address you submitted.’ Lo and behold, it worked.

He told us: ‘Any competent programmer will normally write code that says ‘before processing what the user has written, remove any problematic characters’ such as apostrophes, accents etc.

‘But this may not be the case with inexperienced programmers working to tight deadlines.’

I’m happy for the victorious residents of St Mary’s Terrace. But they may find that there is a price to pay.

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