Module 1 Covid-19 inquiry: Pete Weatherby KC closing speech

24 July 2023

Pete Weatherby KC began his closing speech for Module 1 of the Covid-19 inquiry with the assessment of the UK’s preparedness at the start of the pandemic from former health secretary Matt Hancock – “Woefully inadequate”.

He continued by discussing the risk assessment from which government was working at the time which stated that the worst-case scenario from a new disease would be 200 deaths and 2,000 casualties. Pete made a point of emphasising that this was a worst-case scenario. An assessment which Pete lambasted as “hopelessly wrong by a factor of over 1,000”.

Pete pointed out that this error is all the more remarkable due to the pandemic being “not only foreseeable but actually foreseen,” referencing a speech by former Prime minister, David Cameron, given to the G7 in 2015 warning about the emergence of new disease with fatality rate of Ebola and transmissibility of measles. Something Pete described as “difficult to square” with a reasonable worst-case scenario of just 200 deaths.

He also highlighted the pre-2017 guidance drafted by the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, about how to handle an emerging disease. It was “not the stuff of science fiction to epidemiologists and virologists” Pete continued. Despite the guidance the risk assessments did not include the information, leading Pete to call for a wholesale re-writing of the UK’s strategic approach to pandemics.

“The real question is not: Was the UK as prepared as could be reasonably expected? But: Why was it so catastrophically unprepared given the warnings.”

“It’s not clear why the warnings were not heeded.”

Ineffective structures

“There was no shortage of committees, teams, partnerships, divisions, authorities and groups.”

Pete identified that despite several groups discussing approaches to the pandemic, there was no single point of responsibility in government for civil emergencies in terms of resilience or preparedness. “The captain wasn’t so much missing from the wheelhouse as there simply was no captain.”

Pete criticised the lack of national responsibility and a national framework – to provide resourcing, training and guidance for local authorities – as well as the disconnect between central, regional and local government departments. He linked this to a lack of assurance with regard to minimum standards and compliance: “To suggest that voluntary standards and self-assessment of local bodies provides some kind of assurance is a pure fiction. It does no such thing. There remains no auditing or assurance at either a local or national level.  That must change.”

Flawed approach and a lack of capacity

Pete then highlighted the fact that there was no whole-system plan in place to tackle the pandemic. He agreed that given Covid was directly linked to health there should be a significant emphasis on the NHS but said that “a single-department plan is a flawed model given the far-reaching impact of Covid-19”.

Pete said that even though the system was “never going to work,” the NHS and social care sector were ill prepared due to a severe lack of capacity following years of austerity.

The lack of any critical assessment of the Government’s plans was also criticised.

Pete finished by summarising the health inequalities in relation to race, class and disability, among other, which were seen during the pandemic.

He said that it is a “shocking fact” that the majority of healthcare workers who died from Covid were from ethnic minorities. “Not just a significant number but an actual majority”.

“This is not inevitable. It is the product of structures, not individual choice. There is a need to set out how these inequalities will be challenged.”

Module 1 of the inquiry is now complete with Module 2 scheduled to start in October.

Pete Weatherby KC leads the team representing the Covid Bereaved Families for Justice group, including GCN’s Anna Morris KC, Kate Stone, Ciara Bartlam, Mira Hammad, Christian Weaver and Lily Lewis. Also on the team are Garden Court Chambers tenants Allison Munroe KC and Thalia Maragh, Jesse Nicholls from Matrix Chambers, Oliver Lewis from Doughty Street Chambers and Tom Jones from Deka Chambers.

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