Danny Kruger MP has written the afterword to the new book from the brilliant team at UsForThem, The Accountability Deficit: How ministers and officials evaded accountability, misled the public and violated democracy during the pandemic, written by Molly Kingsley, Arabella Skinner and Ben Kingsley. We reprint Danny’s afterword here in full.
The British state failed the British people in 2020-22. This book details how. The authors believe that ministers and officials were personally to blame for a series of bad decisions which inflicted what they call “an economic, social, medical, ethical and safeguarding disaster” on the public. I also have grave concerns about many decisions the Government took. But my real concern – and indeed the authors’ – goes deeper than personal culpability.
Better ministers and advisers may have made better decisions. But fundamentally what failed in 2020-22 wasn’t a handful of individuals. It was the system as a whole: the British state, its outer ring of expert advisers, advisory bodies and regulators, and the wider set of supposedly independent institutions, including the media and the pharmaceutical industry, which in this crisis rallied to the State and became to all intents and purposes part of it. And above and beneath all of them, what failed was the institution that is intended to hold the rest together and make them honest: Parliament. If we are looking for individuals to blame, look here. What failed was me, and my colleagues.
I was a late convert to scepticism about Covid policy. My view for at least the first year of the crisis was that the Government’s response – mass testing, mass lockdowns, mass vaccination – was the only one that could work. I trusted the experts and, as a loyal Conservative backbencher and then Parliamentary Private Secretary, voted for everything that Ministers put in front of us. I focused my efforts locally, in my Wiltshire constituency, where we saw both real suffering but also a remarkable spirit of neighbourliness and innovation.
In the Summer of 2020, I compiled a report for the Prime Minister exploring how we might harness the community spirit which we saw across the country to “build back better” after the pandemic. In those early months I regarded the whole Covid episode simply as a traumatic pause in the life of the country, thankfully managed by people who knew what they were doing, and I looked forward to a brighter future beyond it.
But as time passed I became slowly radicalised by the Covid experience. Indeed what turned me into a sceptic was the corruption of the concept of ‘community’. As a Conservative I have a deep respect for the institutions, formal and informal, that sustain our national life, starting with families, widening to neighbourhoods and then to the national bodies that give us identity and security. It was this respect for institutions that the Covid response relied upon for the public support it needed; and yet these institutions were its primary victims. The ties that bind us were used to throttle us.
People’s love of their families was exploited by instructions to “don’t kill granny” by visiting her. The strength of local communities, so apparent in the way that neighbours came together spontaneously to look after the elderly and vulnerable, to organise pop-up grocery shops in pub car parks, to stitch (useless, as it turned out) facemasks, was ridden over by a set of diktats that drew all power to the central state. Vital local institutions like schools and churches were closed down altogether in the name of community safety, to protect the young and old. And our national institutions – Parliament most of all, but also the Church of England and the BBC – effectively suspended their independence in the name of solidarity with the Government.
Now that we are out the other side of Covid we can look back and try to understand what we went through, and particularly what we MPs did to our constituents. I am sorry that so few colleagues want to do this. Like the rest of the British establishment, particularly the media which played such a central role in the saga, most politicians want to ‘move on’ from Covid. In this they probably reflect the views of the public. Most people would like to discuss test and trace, lockdown tiers and the vaccine programme as much as they want to discuss Brexit.
But MPs have a duty to do the boring and the difficult stuff. In order to move on safely – and in justice to the many victims of Covid and the response to it – we need to look back and learn the lessons. What, then, can we learn? This account is compiled by three heroic campaigners who, like me, began the pandemic as neutral citizens, happy to trust the state, but – much quicker than me – became dismayed by the tendency of Government to reach for universal coercive measures rather than trusting in the good sense of individuals and families and the resilience of communities. My own experience, and my perspective of this period as a parliamentarian may differ from theirs, but still I agree with their overall analysis and conclusions.
Informed by their analysis, I ascribe the failures of the British state to the following factors: functional failure in Government itself; bad advice and practice from the official experts; and, most fundamentally, the failure of Parliament to do its job. The authors have explained how the normal systems of decision-making fell apart in the pandemic. As the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee reported in 2021, official processes were more or less abandoned in the urgency of the crisis, replaced by WhatsApp groups and ad hoc committees of ministers, advisers and civil servants.
It is perhaps understandable that informal, relationship-based systems arose spontaneously to respond to the unfolding emergency. As Dominic Cummings has said, it turned out that the official processes had already failed. The state was utterly unprepared for the pandemic, and showed itself unable to adapt with the speed and at the scale the crisis demanded. In due course, irregular guerilla operations, on data – and, famously, on vaccine procurement – outperformed the cumbersome systems of Whitehall. But irregular forces need a regular army to form around. The problem with guerilla government is partly one of accountability: it was unclear then, and it is unclear even with hindsight and the divulging of WhatsApp messages, who was responsible for what advice and what decision. But more profoundly the failure of proper government meant an absence of the natural balances which a good system of decision-making includes.
This is most apparent in the evidence of Professor Mark Woolhouse, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), to the Science and Technology Select Committee in June 2020. The focus on modelling public health scenarios – infection and mortality predictions – to the exclusion of other considerations such as the economic and social impact of the proposed measures meant that, in Professor Woolhouse’s words, “we [were ] looking literally at only one side of the equation”. The Government seems to have taken no account of the risks of harm posed by the interventions which the public health advisers recommended.
This leads to the second failure of the British state: bad advice and practice among the experts. The modelling that the Government commissioned into the epidemiology of COVID-19, particularly from Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, at the beginning of the pandemic has become notorious. Just as bad was the graph presented by Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance in September 2020, suggesting that infections were doubling every seven days and that within a month 50,000 people a day would therefore be catching the virus.
The Covid era was defined, as cultures and civilisations tend to be, by its object of worship. During the pandemic we worshipped science – or to give it its proper name, ‘The Science’. The singular definitive suggests the essential error of this religion. Science involves the use of multiple facts and hypotheses. What the authors call the “reductive simplicity” of “the science” meant that the normal scientific processes were laid aside, and instead the clique of credentialled advisers at the top of Government acquired a total supremacy.
Dominic Cummings has said that the dominance of these advisers was welcomed or encouraged by ministers who could use ‘The Science’ to justify their decisions and excuse any bad results. As I have written elsewhere:
We are in thrall to a priestly class of professional scientists who, like the druids of old, reveal to the rulers the mysteries of the other world – or at least offer auguries which serve to excuse a decision. Government may be utterly bewildered but at least it can ‘follow the science’, as in old days it heeded the flight of birds or the entrails of a chicken.
The mysteries of science were invoked most powerfully in the case of the vaccines. Here we need to distinguish between the undoubted operational triumph of the vaccine programme, and the actual value of the vaccines in terms of public health and our liberation from lockdowns. The Vaccine Taskforce, led by Kate Bingham, capitalised on our new Brexit-found freedoms to procure the vaccine doses the country wanted. It was an example of effective government – probably because it took place outside the formal systems of the state. What followed, however, raises serious questions which have yet to be answered.
The vaccines were licensed by the U.K.’s medical regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), in record time in order to facilitate the end of the lockdowns. This process deserves proper scrutiny, not only because of the speed of licensing but because the technology involved in some of the vaccines was comparatively novel.
The licensing of the vaccines was the responsibility of the MHRA. The Government, advised by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), then had to decide which members of the public should receive the jabs, and in which order. Initially the Government’s view, expressed by Kate Bingham in October 2020, was that “it’s an adult-only vaccine, for people over 50”. Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, reiterated in November that “this is an adult vaccine”. Yet within 18 months the parents of children aged five were being encouraged to have them vaccinated.
This followed the obscure episode in September 2021 in which the JCVI refused to recommend the vaccination of healthy 12-15 year olds, and then the Government’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, overruled the advice and “on public health grounds” recommended the vaccination of young teenagers – despite the miniscule risk of Covid for this age group. As the authors argue, this represented a very serious breach of the important ethical principle that medical treatments should be administered for the sake of the patients receiving them, not for the sake of others or ‘the public’ in general.
It has never been satisfactorily explained why the official advice changed so completely during 2021 – even as our understanding of the efficacy and the safety of the vaccines developed, and in the wrong direction. It was originally believed that the vaccines would stop the transmission of Covid. They turned out to do no such thing. And it gradually emerged, as more of the public was vaccinated, that for many people the jabs had significant side-effects, including serious heart conditions and in some cases death.
The licensing of the COVID-19 vaccines was the responsibility of the MHRA. This body was frequently described by ministers as “the best in the world”; rather like ‘the science’, the religion in which the MHRA performed a leading priestly function, the regulator gave the Government a plausible cover to hide its decisions behind. Yet the majority of the funding for the MHRA comes from the very pharmaceutical companies whose products it is supposed to regulate.
As successive investigations over the years, including by the Health Select Committee, have found, the pharmaceutical industry exercises an excessive influence over healthcare in the U.K., and is particularly influential over the regulator. In May 2022 Dame June Raine, the head of the MHRA, approvingly described the MHRA as having changed “from a watchdog to an enabler”. This is not an appropriate description of the agency which is supposed to decide, on behalf of the public, which drugs and treatments are safe and effective for use.
When the pandemic first appeared the view of the Government, and especially of the then Prime Minister, was that the British people and their institutions would resent and even resist the degree of state control that the necessary response might entail. In the end this belief in the spirit of British liberty was disproved. People were content, even keen, to trade their freedom for what they were told was their security. And this is partly, I believe, because of the near unanimity of establishment voices saying the same thing.
Here the role of private sector players is significant. Because it wasn’t just the official agencies of the Government that recommended mass lockdowns and later mass vaccination. The mainstream media, including the major social media platforms, overwhelmingly backed the Government’s position. As the authors explain, this included deliberate action to suppress the online presence of the Great Barrington Declaration, the open letter signed by eminent scientists from around the world questioning the lockdown policies. UsForThem, the authors’ campaign group, found its online reach restricted by what appears to be deliberate action to mute its campaign.
The group was also subject to an early version of the ‘debanking’ scandal that later engulfed Coutts and Natwest when they arbitrarily terminated the account of Nigel Farage. In September 2022 Paypal suspended UsForThem’s account, along with that of the Free Speech Union, apparently for the crime of being out of step with the Government’s Covid policy.
I was the first MP to raise the Paypal scandal in the Commons. By then it was obvious that many of the initial assumptions about the virulence and lethality of Covid, and the interventions (pharmaceutical and otherwise) intended to combat it, were mistaken. And as an MP I share the responsibility for this. Because if the operations of Government were dysfunctional, and the advice and practice of the ecosystem of official advisers and regulators and the wider establishment (including big companies) was also at fault, the third and final body to blame for the disaster of the Covid response is the one supposed to mitigate the faults of the others and hold them to account: Parliament.
A depressing theme of this book is what the authors call the “passivity” of the organisations theoretically supposed to defend the rights of people harmed by the Covid response, such as the children’s organisations which tacitly or overtly endorsed the closure of schools and the lockdown of children in unsafe homes. But the passivity really emanated from the institution which more than any other should have held the Government to account for its decisions.
Parliament effectively went on leave for the duration of the crisis. For months we operated a ‘virtual’ Chamber, with speeches and questions beamed in from MPs’ homes to giant screens hung over the gallery, to be met with stock pre-prepared responses from ministers. Debate was non-existent, and even Written Parliamentary Questions – the way MPs get more detailed answers from Government departments – were discouraged by the Speaker. In no way can the House of Commons or the House of Lords be said to have given Government policy the scrutiny it needed.
The legal framework for the Covid response was a set of laws, some of them already in existence and some of them hastily put together in the first phase of the crisis. As the authors explain, the Coronavirus Act – creating sweeping new powers to ban gatherings, delay elections and organise health resources, including for quarantines – was debated for just six hours and passed in a single day on March 23rd 2020. It required a vote in Parliament to renew its provisions every six months, though without the opportunity for amendments, so MPs were required to accept or reject the whole act in full.
In the end, however, it wasn’t this exceptional legislation that the Government used to order the lockdowns. Three days after the Coronavirus Bill passed the Commons, Matt Hancock signed into law the Health Protection (Coronovirus, Restrictions) Regulations 2020, using emergency powers conferred by the 1984 Public Health (Control of Disease) Act. The Public Health Act was designed to enable the Government to order the quarantine of dangerously infected, identified individuals. It was used in 2020 to order the entire country to “stay at home”. The regulations were not presented to Parliament until 90 minutes after they were signed and came into force; but the previous day Parliament had risen for the Easter recess, and did not get the chance to debate the measures for another six weeks.
The suspicions of the authors, and of Lord Sumption, the former Supreme Court judge who has written extensively on this episode, is difficult to dispute: the Government used the Public Health Act because it granted more sweeping powers than the Coronavirus Act or the Civil Contingencies Act (the existing vehicle for organising society in an emergency, which nevertheless entails a tight regime of Parliamentary control), and because it allowed the use of the emergency procedure to circumvent Parliamentary approval.
Five-hundred and eighty-two Covid-related measures were presented to Parliament in the two years of the pandemic. One hundred of them followed the model of the Health Protection Regulations, being signed into law by ministers before they even came to Parliament, using the emergency procedure of the Public Health Act. A further 417 were passed using the ‘negative’ procedure whereby a measure becomes law automatically, without Parliamentary debate, unless the Commons actively resolves to annul it.
In September 2020 I wrote to constituents about my decision to vote for the first six-month renewal of the Coronavirus Act. It was, I said, “an appalling situation for a free people, with a tradition of personal liberty and freedom of association going back many centuries… I am deeply uneasy about it all, but I accept the Government’s leadership, based on its assessment of the scientific advice”.
As I have outlined, and as the authors make clear, that scientific advice was not adequate, and the Government’s leadership, while sincerely intended to protect the public, was wanting. The official enquiry into the pandemic, led by Baroness Hallett, will, I hope, help us understand why decisions were taken and what their effect was. But we also need to make some decisions, as a society – in Parliament and in Government – about the future.
I regret that my proposals for a renewal of civil society and community responsibility, presented to an indifferent or distracted Government at the height of the first wave of COVID-19, have not been adopted. I still believe that the pandemic taught us the power and generosity of local neighbourhoods, and the capacity for innovation and flexibility in all parts of society, from universities and local government to businesses and the public services.
But it also taught us the power of the state, aided by the media and the wider establishment, to persuade the public to give up their liberty and their responsibility. The great lesson of the pandemic must be to ensure we never do that again.
The promise of Brexit was the transformation of the British state. This was the great domestic reform which was due to follow our departure from the EU, and it remains the imperative priority for the Government now. The authors show what happens when a cumbersome bureaucracy, without clear processes or the backstop of accountability, meets a dynamic and large-scale threat. More such threats are hanging over the U.K.: economic, ecological, military; as well as the expected next pandemic. We need a leaner, more strategic, more capable state, with more responsibility for local decisions devolved to local decision-makers and a more effective system of accountability.
And we need Parliament to do its job. I for one, with the benefit of hindsight – though some brave colleagues, and many brave people outside Parliament, were making these points at the time – recognise the mistakes that were made during the pandemic, and I apologise for the role I played in authorising them. Next time – whatever next time looks like – we need to do much, much better.
Danny Kruger MBE is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Devizes in Wiltshire.