Was it Confucius, the ancient and wise Chinese philosopher, who offered the wish: ‘may you live in interesting times’. He must have had foreknowledge of current events and times in the United Kingdom when he opined those words. For yes, indeed, these are interesting times in the UK.
Let’s talk about more recent history and the events of the Covid-19 pandemic. The world and our lives as we knew it changed irrevocably in the early weeks of January and February 2020.
The first time I ever wrote about the virus was for this publication, an editorial noting that the authorities in Wuhan had closed down the city and that there was every likelihood that it would be contained. That’s part of the issue for us journalists who write the first draft of history — it has a way of proving you wrong. But who on this planet could have foretold how things would unfold.
In the UK, the first cases of the virus were reported on 29 January, and the numbers grew with each passing hour it seemed. While other nations closed down and declared public emergencies and restrictions of gatherings and movement, the UK, led by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, did not immediately follow suit.
The annual horse race festival at Cheltenham took place as usual, so too a Europe Cup semi-final between Liverpool and an Italian football side, and life pretty much carried on as normal until the gravity of the situation simply became too overbearing to ignore.
I will declare a personal interest in this period here, with my first cousin, Frank Clark, dying in Cheltenham shortly after attending the races. Yes, Covid had claimed him — and many thousands more in the days and weeks and months that followed. Even how the death rate was calculated has become a deep debate in itself.
What is certain is that more than a million Brits died during the pandemic and the UK had the highest per capita death rate in Europe, and the fourth-highest globally. Think about that for a moment, if you will: The highest per capita death rate in Europe. Bear in mind too that the UK is a member of the G7 group of economic nations, and was one of the three economic powerhouses on the continents along with Germany and France.
It is this core fact that is at the heart of the public inquiry called by the UK government to understand exactly what went right or wrong with the national response to the pandemic.
Passing the buck
Political observers and analysts will tell you that a public inquiry is also a means of simply kicking a potentially embarrassing subject into the long grass. But in this case, because of the emotive quotient attached to Covid — those victims left relatives behind who were unable to be with the loved ones as they passed — there is little opportunity to simply play for time.
The government appointed Judge Baroness Heather Hallett to gather the facts, listen to witnesses and draw up what will be no doubt a detailed report some time down the road.
But right now, Judge Hallett has proven herself to be very thorough indeed in gathering documents from every level of government and officialdom. She is trying to leave no stone unturned — and that, for the highest levels of government and those who were calling the shots at the time, that is potentially very embarrassing indeed.
For example, the current PM Rishi Sunak was the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, and came up with a controversial “eat out to help out” scheme to revive restaurants as one lockdown ended. It was costly in financial terms, at £840 million. But also too in spreading a second wave of the virus as people mingled in eateries.
Judge Hallett has run head into a brick wall trying to get WhatsApp correspondence between all of the senior government ministers and personnel at the time. Initially, Johnson refused to pass his on, and has reluctantly agreed to give them to the Cabinet Office. But despite legal threats, much of the information wanted by Judge Hallett in its unredacted form, hasn’t been handed over.
It is but the latest sad and sorry chapter in a modern history book that includes a prime minister and his senior staff, partying and legally convicted and fined at Downing Street while too many Brits were drowning to death with Covid. And even more galling is that the government has paid out a sum close to a quarter of a million pounds on legal fees for Boris Johnson to defend what most very clearly see as the indefensible.
So, yes, we live in interesting times. And sadly so.