The independent Public Inquiry to examine the Government’s handling of the Covid pandemic in the UK will open the hearing on its first module on Valentine’s Day 14th February. Conservatives should not expect any loving responses, writes Philip Bushill-Matthews.
Boris Johnson, though no longer Prime Minister, continues to boast that when in office he got ‘the big calls right’. The Inquiry may come to a very different conclusion.
True, the UK was the first country in Europe to launch a vaccine roll-out, though it would not be long before the EU vaccinated a higher proportion of its citizens. This initial success was primarily down to Kate Bingham, who rapidly assembled a talented team of entrepreneurs and experts who knew how to make things happen. Her recent book ‘The Long Shot’ chronicles her progress: it dispassionately dissects the challenges she faced, including Government ministers regularly trying to discredit her and civil servants insisting on bureaucratic risk assessments when the risks were completely unknown. She won through despite the Government rather than because of it.
The first problem the Government then encountered was getting enough Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for medical staff. The EU moved rapidly to initiate a bulk-buy procurement plan within days for a first tranche of £1.5 billion of masks, overalls and goggles involving 25 countries and eight companies. The European Commission said the offers from suppliers were greater than the numbers asked for – but the UK Government chose to go it alone (of course). The result was a shambles of shortages.
The UK solution was to set up a special VIP lane with at least 46 contracts awarded worth some £5 billion without going through the official eight-stage vetting process. Some of the successful applicants had personal connections with ministers, and some had no previous experience of PPE production. The Department of Health and Social Care admitted that there was a risk of fraud, and subsequently wrote off almost £9 billion, having found many items ‘not suitable for the NHS’. Later the Courts would rule that the whole concept of a VIP lane was unlawful. Meanwhile, one of the alleged VIP suppliers, Conservative Baroness Michelle Mone, has become the subject of a potential fraud investigation by the National Crime Agency.
Judges at the High Court have also ruled against the Government on another issue, stating that sending thousands of elderly patients into care homes without testing was ‘irrational’. The Government claim to have put a protective ring around care homes was exposed as nonsense: during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020 alone around 20,000 care home residents died of Covid.
Further fraud was identified by HMRC (HM Revenue and Customs) in 2021 estimating that under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, known as the furlough scheme, fraud and errors amounted to some £5.3 billion or 8.7% of all the money paid out. Scammers have done very well out of Covid.
It has been generally suggested that the UK locked down two weeks too late, and then removed restrictions too early, thereby contributing to a wider death toll. Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s ‘Eat out to help out’ scheme to support the hospitality industry with £10 vouchers, considered a great idea at the time, meant that over 10 million people from different households may well have fuelled a further spike in infections when Covid was already starting to increase again.
This view has recently been reinforced by data from Statista, updated in January 2023. Covid deaths in the UK throughout the pandemic were 298 people per thousand population. This was higher than many EU member states including Belgium, Portugal, Spain, France, Austria Sweden, Germany, Ireland, Denmark and the Netherlands – the last two on this list having Covid death rates less than half the UK figure.
None of the above suggests that the Government got the big calls right. But the greatest scam of all was Boris Johnson’s repeated claim that the early vaccine roll-out was one of the many ‘Brexit freedoms’ which could never have happened if the UK was still a member of the EU and thus shackled to the decisions of the EU Medicines Agency. This was a lie at the time, and regularly repeating it may have been canny politics but could never make it true.
Health within the EU is recognised as a Member State competence: the EU can make proposals for concerted action, but individual countries have always been free to manage their own health budgets, priorities and practices, which is as it should be.
Many people and companies have scammed the system during the Covid pandemic, but the greatest scammer has been the UK Government, shamelessly claiming full credit despite the facts suggesting the complete opposite.
The Public Inquiry needs no fresh information: all it needs to do is read the EU Political Report.
The Author, Philip Bushill-Matthews, is Former Leader of the British Conservatives in the European Parliament.
3 thoughts on “The Great Covid Scam”
This is bang on the money. Johnson will keep on telling us that he got ‘the big calls right’ because that’s his MO – repeat the lie with conviction often enough and people will believe you. The reality is very different. Let’s hope for a more considered appraisal of the government’s performance at the inquiry. Thanks for a great article
A first rate analysis. I think we Brits might excuse errors in the rollout of aspects of our Covid response, even to a reluctant acceptance that the frauds associated with the job retention scheme were inevitable (but dwarfed by the benefits). Inexcusable are the endless crony deals with respect to the awarding of contract, many of them resulting in significant waste of resources, and the endless lies and boosterism that accompanied everything the Johnson government attempted . I hope the upcoming review is prepared to point the finger, and not be an exercise in white washing.
I always enjoy Philip Bushill-Mathews comment pieces. He is as always well informed, sharp and persuasive.