Anna Morris KC delivers closing submission for Module 2 of the UK Covid-19 Inquiry
18 December 2023
Module 2 of the UK Covid-19 Inquiry came to an end last week. Anna Morris KC gave a closing statement on behalf of the Covid Bereaved Families for Justice (watch the video below or read the full transcript).
Anna began by drawing the Chair’s attention to the issues of whether the Government and the Prime Minister acted quickly and effectively in response to the pandemic.
‘The real question is whether the Prime Minister and the political leadership were decisive and proactive. Or was their response, at every turn, reactive, too little too late? Was the machinery of Government, both its advisers and officials, organised in a fit and efficient manner, working in lockstep with each other for the good of the country?’
Anna then emphatically rejected all three of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s assertions that:
- The UK performed better than predicted,
- The UK would have prepared if it had known the dangers of Covid-19
- The Government was surprised by the severity of Covid in the UK in early March 2020.
Anna pointed out that the UK did very poorly against all but one comparable European country, based upon age-standardised excess death mortality rates set against a five-year average.
‘If there was a basis for [Mr Johnson’s claim the UK had done better than predicted], no doubt Mr Johnson and his team of lawyers would have exhibited the evidence. They have not.’
Anna also pointed out that by early January 2020 the UK Government was acutely aware of the severity and pace of transmission of Covid-19 and had designated Covid as a High Consequence Infectious Disease (HCID).
‘Later in January clear documentary evidence shows us that Professors Farrar, Woolhouse and Ferguson were sounding the alarm, as were Professors Whitty and Vallance, who were, of course, at the centre of advice to government.
‘There was evidence from China, confirmed by the diplomatic telegram we’ve seen, as early as 26 January, that there was confirmed asymptomatic transmission, human to human, not anecdotal evidence but confirmed from the director of the Minister of Health.’
Anna referred to the topic of Module 1 in terms of the lack of planning and preparedness in the UK Government for a pandemic and pointed to the lack of urgency to this with which those at the top level responded. This included the procurement of suitable PPE and the implementation of an effective test and trace program.
‘It is crystal clear that as of January there were insufficient stockpiles of PPE – no one seems to have known what there was and where. There also seems to have been scant understanding of need, in particular in the care sector, and no real distribution or management plan.’
‘UK scientists had devised a Covid test admirably early in January. The problem was not that the UK did not have a test, it was that our government failed to surge manufacture or procure anywhere near the required capacity until much later in the pandemic.’
Anna also gave context to Mr Johnson’s claim of surprise at how far along the curve the UK was in early March.
‘By this point, we could all see on the Television parts of Italy were being overwhelmed by the virus. Eleven municipalities had been quarantined by order of the government on 23 February. Yet the UK govt floundered with already out of date ‘action plans’, but little meaningful action.
‘Mr Johnson’s point, that the UK was taken by surprise by how far along the curve we were by early March must be seen against that background.’
Anna moved on to discuss the first lockdown and the consensus among witnesses that it was not only unavoidable but also that it was late. This delay was a key moment of the pandemic. Anna explained the false dichotomy of protecting public health and protecting the economy.
‘The point about earlier and harder lockdowns, is that they hit the curve at a lower point. It is quicker and easier to flatten the curve before it is out of control. Quicker and easier means less economic damage, less damage to our children, less risk for those escaping domestic violence, less mental health impact, less disproportionate impact on ethnic minority communities, the disabled, and the most economically disadvantaged.’
Anna also addressed the harmful, misleading and upsetting coverage from elements of the media regarding lockdowns.
‘There is nothing anti-libertarian about temporary, emergency, public health measures to save lives, any more than there is anything authoritarian about the binding legal requirement on the state to do everything reasonably possible to protect life pursuant to Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Sorry to disappoint those who would cast lockdowns as a part of the culture wars, but the Human Rights Act and English common law are agreed on this one.’
Following the first lockdown the Government embarked on the Eat Out to Help Out scheme which the government failed to consult its scientific advisers on in advance of announcing it. It was an initiative which Sir Patrick Vallance said must have increased infection rates and highly likely to have increased the number of deaths.
However, on September 11, 2020, as the numbers continued to get worse, it appeared that Mr Johnson had understood that action needed to be taken, despite unfavourable commentary from certain sections of the media. But 10 days later, rather than following advice from SAGE which recommended a circuit breaker as part of a connected package of measures, to reverse the exponential rise in cases, the government embarked upon implementing a series of tiers which predictably failed to achieve their aim. The government did not seek advice from SAGE or elsewhere for these tiered measures.
‘…even in the face of a realisation of the dire situation developing over summer 2020, Mr Johnson and his government floundered in the face of ideological opposition and ignored scientific advice. The result was a colossal loss of life in a second wave, and a longer and more damaging second lockdown.’
Anna continued to explain that while there were eminent scientists across the UK there was a lack of organisation. And that the tried and testing approach of convening a standing committee of experts would have been a far more effective approach in advising on pandemic planning and the implementation of measures.
Anna then came back to her earlier points about PPE provision and testing capacity…
The lack of testing capacity meant that Prof Whitty and others were flying blind on where we were on the curve. Without resilience and tests, scientists had to go along with discharging thousands of older people from hospitals to the care sector without proper infection control. Without PPE our brave key workers, including Drs nurses and cleaners were left shamefully unprotected.
…and the impact of the PPE shortage on decision-making.
Did the lack of PPE influence scientists to downgrade Covid in mid-March, from a HCID so that doctors and others could be asked to use paper masks on Covid wards, rather than respirators? How else can one explain the fact that in the eye of the storm as the infection rate exploded in mid-March, the fifth worst pandemic in history, ranked by order of numbers of human deaths, was now not a high consequence disease?
The impact of a lack of PPE was also more acute when analysed in terms of suitability for difference in gender, ethnicity and culture. This was highlighted as just one example of structural discrimination experienced throughout the pandemic.
On this subject Anna addressed directly the evidence of the Equalities minister at the time, Kemi Badenoch, who suggested that evidence has shown that being an ethnic minority was not the cause of being disproportionately impacted but that it correlated with what the causes were and the comorbidities.
‘That was absolutely not the evidence, disproportionate impact was related to structural issues such as the fact that black and ethnic minority workers make up a huge proportion of the health services and care sectors and transport, and the gig economy: all high risk.’
Later Ms Badenoch chose an example of Pakistani taxi drivers and suggested it would be wrong to provide measures aimed at alleviating their risks because there are also white drivers and targeted measures are unlawful.
‘Measures aimed at addressing disproportionate impact are plainly not favouring persons of one background over another, and equally plainly they are not unlawful in the way suggested.
‘The failure to address disproportionate impacts was in our submission, of itself an aspect of structural discrimination, and the views of the Equalities Minister appear to triumph ideology over reality and the law.’
Finally, Anna turned to the role of unelected advisors, the dysfunction and negative culture they created, the lack of diversity and opportunity in the top-level groups, and the role that the behaviour of those groups had in undermining public confidence in crucial Covid restrictions.
‘He whom Mr Johnson could not bring himself to name in his evidence, was given almost unfettered power and used it, or more accurately misused it. Undeniably Dominic Cummings and others around him were allowed to create a toxic atmosphere – white and male – which scared off competent others and created a dysfunctionality we have seen through countless messages stirring up internecine conflict.
‘Add to that a culture of indifference to abiding by their own regulations, and the evidence exposes the Johnson administration to have been rotten to its core.’
In closing, Anna sought to dismiss the inference that more informal communications such as WhatsApp messages, emails and diaries should carry less weight than formal accounts such as meeting minutes.
‘If the failings of Mr Johnson, Mr Sunak, Mr Cummings and others are laid bare by their own unguarded comments, they have only themselves to blame.’
Anna and Pete Weatherby KC lead the team representing the Covid Bereaved Families for Justice UK group in Module 2 of the Inquiry, which includes GCN’s Christian Weaver, Kate Stone, Ciara Bartlam, Mira Hammad, Lily Lewis and Hamish McCallum. Also on the team are Garden Court Chambers tenants Allison Munroe KC (Modules 1 and 3) and Thalia Maragh, Jesse Nicholls from Matrix Chambers, Oliver Lewis from Doughty Street Chambers and Tom Jones from Deka Chambers. The team is instructed by Elkan Abrahamson, Nicola Brook, and Emma Beckett from Broudie Jackson Canter.