Gove apologises to bereaved families for Government’s ‘errors’ during pandemic
Michael Gove has apologised to victims and bereaved families for Government “errors” during the pandemic as he listed what he believed were the failings, including locking down too late.
But the senior Tory, who was Cabinet Office minister and chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster when the pandemic began in 2020, also defended Boris Johnson’s “gladiatorial” decision-making and his No 10 against claims of dysfunctionality.
Giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry on Tuesday, Mr Gove said he took some responsibility for the “mistakes” made at the top level of politics when the crisis unfolded and that he regretted not being more “forthright” in pushing for an earlier first lockdown.
He said: “If I may… apologise to the victims who endured such pain, the families who endured so much loss as a result of the mistakes that were made by Government in response to the pandemic.
“As a minister responsible for the Cabinet Office, and was also close to many of the decisions that were made, I must take my share of responsibility for that.”
Mr Gove said politicians are “human beings” who are “fallible” and “every decision was difficult and every course was bad” at the time.
While some mistakes were “unique and specific to the UK Government”, Mr Gove said “we need to remember that governments everywhere made errors”.
Asked later what the Government’s failures were, the Levelling Up Secretary gave a direct answer.
He said: “I believe that we were too slow to lockdown initially in March (2020). I believe we should have taken stricter measures before we eventually decided to do so in late October.”
Testing should have been more rigorously thought through, there was not enough focus on the impact on children and there were errors with the procurement of personal protective equipment, he added, noting that this was not an exhaustive list.
The UK was “certainly not well-enough prepared” for the unfolding pandemic in March 2020, he said.
Mr Gove’s frustration at the time at the handling of the pandemic was clear in a WhatsApp message – shown to the inquiry – to Dominic Cummings on March 4.
“You know me, I don’t often kick off but we’re f****** up as a government and missing golden opportunities,” Mr Gove said in the exchange.
“I will carry on doing what I can but the whole situation is even worse than you think and action needs to be taken or we will regret it for a long time.”
Explaining the message to the inquiry, Mr Gove said he was concerned overall about the Cabinet Office, for which he had recently taken on responsibility, including its ability to deal with Covid.
The veteran Conservative accepted he “should definitely have been more forthright” in pushing for a lockdown at the beginning of March 2020.
He said Mr Johnson should not be singled out for criticism over the delay in imposing restrictions, noting that ministers and officials who did not voice their belief in the need for earlier action also “deserve our share, retrospectively, of criticism”.
The then-prime minister has been accused of dithering and failing to stick to decisions he had already made, at a time when the public health advice was pointing in the direction of a lockdown.
Mr Gove defended his old boss, who he said preferred “gladiatorial decision-making” with two or three options being weighed up.
Mr Johnson’s “principled attachment to maximising individual liberty” meant it was “difficult for him to contemplate something like this”, Mr Gove also said.
The Cabinet minister also sought to play down accusations levelled repeatedly during the inquiry that Mr Johnson’s No 10 was mired in chaos, saying it was the nature of politics to have “strong personalities” with “strong views, sometimes punchily expressed”.
Mr Gove said he had a “high opinion” of former health secretary Matt Hancock, who faced repeated criticism from a number of witnesses before the inquiry.
Various witnesses have expressed concern about his performance as health secretary, with the inquiry hearing that the country’s most senior civil servant at the time, Lord Sedwill, wanted Mr Hancock to be sacked.
Mr Gove said “too much was asked” of Mr Hancock’s Department of Health and Social Care at the start of the pandemic and that other parts of Government should have taken on more.
The Levelling Up Secretary, who has held a number of prominent roles in Government, also told the inquiry that the Cabinet Office was “flawed” and not effective at dealing with crises.
“The Cabinet Office in and of itself, over many years, has operated in a way which is not as effective as it should be for the effective delivery of Government policy, both business as usual, and also in response to crises.”
The Surrey Heath MP at one point noted there was a significant body of judgment that believes Covid-19 was “man-made”, only to be told by Mr Keith the “divisive” issue was not part of the inquiry’s terms of reference.
Later this week, Lady Hallett’s probe will also take evidence from Mr Hancock and ex-deputy prime minister Dominic Raab.
The inquiry is taking evidence as part of its second module on core UK decision-making and political governance.
The UK had “no tests left” as global health leaders encouraged countries to “test, test, test” during the pandemic’s early days, the UK Covid-19 public inquiry has been told.
Professor Dame Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), said remaining tests were given as a priority to hospitals, which picked up more cases than anticipated.
Without this surveillance the UK may have gone into lockdown “much later”, she said.
Dame Jenny was quizzed about remarks she made during a Downing Street press conference in March 2020, after a decision was made to cease community testing.
She said the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s “test, test, test” directive was being made to low and middle-income countries before they had carried out a single test for Covid.
“The problem we had was we had ‘test, test, tested’ and we had no tests left… we prioritised the testing and the prioritisation of the testing is exactly the same prioritisation as WHO put out in its statement nine days later,” she said.
Dame Jenny said at the time it was important to “focus (testing) where it is clinically most valuable”.
She told the inquiry: “I fully supported WHO ‘test, test, testing’ but at this point we had no more tests.”
She added: “At this point, we had around 5,000 tests; they were prioritised into clinical treatment.
“And so everybody in hospitals, particularly in intensive care units, started to be tested.
“Now, if you look at the dates for this, the testing picked up more cases than was anticipated in hospitals.
“And, by this time, you could then start to extrapolate back what that might mean for community infection rates.
“So this was a high-level surveillance system which then allowed us, with more certainty than was there, I think, which then led to the alerts to ministers and an early lockdown.
“So I think if we had not done this, we would have gone into lockdown much later.”
Dame Jenny was also asked about personal protective equipment (PPE).
In March 2020, she said the country had a “perfectly adequate” supply of PPE and while there were some “differential deliveries”, these had been resolved.
She said she later apologised for her remarks.
“I had been told that the new supply system for getting them around the country, so there wasn’t a differential distribution, was resolved,” she said.
“And that turned out to be not the case. And, in fact, I apologised as soon as I could when I was next on the stand about 10 days later.”
Dame Jenny also referred to international pandemic preparedness rankings made before the pandemic, when the UK was hailed as an “international exemplar” because it had a pandemic influenza stockpile.
Asked about pointing the gradings out in a Downing Street press conference in April 2020, she said: “The point I was trying to make here is that having a pandemic influenza stockpile of any sort whatsoever, which undoubtedly the country did, was considered – not by me, this is an external objective assessment – to have been a very high quality mark of a prepared country. Clearly the world will be reforming how it manages and assesses how good it is.
“I recognise that, in retrospect, it feels wrong, almost, when we look back. We clearly were not in an exemplary position then.”
Meanwhile, Dame Jenny said she never expected to be standing next to the prime minister giving press conferences in Downing Street.
She said she often was not given information before the press conferences, which often included questions about topics outside her brief at the time, when she was deputy chief medical officer for England responsible for health improvement.
Dame Jenny insisted it was not her job to defend Government policy during the press briefings.
She said in some press conferences she used “simpler, less scientifically detailed” language but still tried to get the public health message across.
Meanwhile Dame Jenny told the inquiry that the UKHSA is trying to build data dashboards, similar to ones used during the pandemic, so the public can see what is happening and “make their own choices”.
“What we have seen in the UK, in our own culture, and without mandation, is that people, if people have the information, then they will start to make choices themselves.
“It is important to be transparent with the information and to share it.”
Dame Jenny will continue giving evidence on Wednesday.
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