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Covid-19 Internal Review

Volume 812: debated on Thursday 20 May 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will publish their internal review of the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

My Lords, I start by welcoming the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, to the Bench; I am very much looking forward to working with her in the months ahead. The Prime Minister confirmed on 12 May that a public inquiry will be established on a statutory basis to consider the Covid-19 pandemic, including the Government’s handling of it. I can confirm that while DHSC officials carried out a routine internal ways-of-working review, this was absolutely for the purpose of providing advice to Ministers only.

My Lords, the National Audit Office report published yesterday both highlighted the need for the Government to learn lessons at speed and advocated greater transparency. Publishing an already completed internal review of the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis would support a plan to contain the threat of new variants, and I urge the Government to do so. I am interested to know whether the Minister can come to agree with me on this. With experts, including SAGE, warning that it is very much in the balance as to whether further restrictions will be lifted in June, given the dramatic rise in Indian Covid-19 variant cases, will the Government learn the lessons and urgently review travel and quarantine arrangements?

My Lords, I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness that we are at a pivotal moment in the pandemic; matters are on a knife-edge. There is so much good news about the effect of the vaccine that we should celebrate, but there is enormous jeopardy in the threat posed by variants. That is why we are very much focused on dealing with the pandemic before us. The inquiry promised by the Prime Minister is for spring next year, and until then we will continue to be focused on today’s pandemic.

My Lords, Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of SAGE, this morning said that he thinks we are now at the start of the third wave and that more generalised measures will be needed. As an adviser to government is saying that we need to act and plan now, what generalised measures are the Government planning and when will they be announced, so that people and businesses do not have just 24 hours to plan?

My Lords, we are enormously grateful for the advice of SAGE, which, as the noble Lord will know, is a very large collection of scientists, many of whom have many different views. The JBC takes their advice into account, and we are absolutely monitoring the situation as closely as we possibly can. We celebrate the transparency with which the very large amount of surveillance data is handled and published for public analysis. Measures are in place on testing, therapeutics and social distancing, but the number one measure is the vaccine. The rollout of the vaccine is what will give this country the protection it needs.

My Lords, I reiterate my congratulations to the Government and all those involved in the fantastic success of the vaccine development and rollout programme. This inquiry does not need to be long and drawn out. Will my noble friend confirm that it will look into the accuracy of—and contradictory nature of some of—the scientific advice received over the last year, the appalling scaremongering of some of the media, the validity of political decisions such as lockdowns, and whether the government reaction to the pandemic, and the reaction overall, has been proportionate?

My Lords, the Prime Minister promised on 12 May that there will be a statutory inquiry beginning in spring 2022, as my noble friend alluded to. Its chair and terms of reference will be announced before spring 2022, and it will be for the terms of reference and the chair to determine exactly what subjects are looked at.

My Lords, I ask the Minister to return to the first Question asked by my noble friend—she asked two—which he overlooked. Does the Minister agree that publishing the internal review could strengthen the strategic plan to contain new variants? Does he agree with me that it would certainly raise public trust and that, because of the inordinate delay until next year in starting the public inquiry, it surely makes sense? Even if this is not a public-facing review, it is of such public interest that he should publish the internal review.

My Lords, as I said before, there was an internal ways-of-working review into the department’s early response to the pandemic, way before the threat of variants was on the horizon. None the less, it is our commitment to focus on the pandemic and the threat presented to us by its future evolution. That is why we are focused on today’s measures. We will leave reflection on the past to the inquiry.

Does the Minister see that we will keep on having variants of this virus and, to an extent, will have to learn to live with it? I am sure people would be much happier if we were to downscale the amount of advice that we get from a variety of often dubious sources. The sooner we can publish an inquiry into it, the better. We must recognise that the Government faced an enormous challenge. Overall, they have come out of it pretty well, and we should not carp.

My Lords, I am enormously grateful to my noble friend for his comments. I know he has been a vocal critic of some things, and I take his comments in very good measure. On his point on guidance, this is not how the public have presented things to us. They want clear, easy-to-understand guidance. We have learned the importance of publishing in many languages and now regularly publish in 10 spoken languages. The public are in fact hungry for detailed guidance, which is why we have published more than 400 pieces of guidance on GOV.UK, covering everything from funerals, care homes and schools right through to smokers, vapers, houseboat dwellers and singing with children. That is because the public would like to have this kind of advice and recommendation.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, on how professionally he handles his responsibilities in the Lords. I am sure he will support the Prime Minister’s announcement that a full inquiry will be held next year, beginning in the spring, which will place the state’s actions under the microscope. The existing internal lessons-learned review was an informal exercise, not a public-facing work, which I believe will not be published. It would be wrong to publish it. While there have inevitably been some mistakes, I congratulate the Government and the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, on having got Covid-19 vaccinations moving significantly faster than the EU. I hope he will exceed the speed limit even more.

I am enormously grateful for my noble friend’s kind comments. On his point on vaccines, I emphasise the enormous contribution of the whole union behind the vaccine project. It has been a union project to deploy vaccines to every person in the UK at amazing speed and with consistency right across all parts of the union. For that we should be enormously grateful.

My Lords, while we all here respect that health is a devolved responsibility, does the Minister not agree with me that one of the problems that arose was the confusion arising from different rules in different parts of the United Kingdom and different messages throughout the United Kingdom? In the inquiry, will the United Kingdom Government talk with the devolved Administrations to make sure that, in future, there is a more co-ordinated response? The virus knows no boundaries.

My Lords, the Prime Minister will define the terms of reference and the chair will define how the inquiry deports itself. On the noble Lord’s point about the rules and the suggestion of confusion, I agree that there was a lot of heat and smoke around differences but the truth is that 99% of everything that we did between the different parts of the union was exactly the same. There was a lot of focus on very small differences, but what I celebrate is how much common ground there was in our responses.

My Lords, I echo the congratulations to my noble friend on his dedication to his role, and I welcome the noble Baroness opposite to her position. I join other colleagues in congratulating the Government on their successful rollout of the vaccine, which, from what we can see so far, deals with the variants that have arisen and allows us to open our country back up again after the extraordinary efforts that have been made in connection with the vaccine. In connection with any review, will there be an urgent announcement of an investigation into the way that social care was handled, particularly at the beginning of this, for those people who are so reliant on home care or care homes for their very survival?

My Lords, I do not think I need to speculate on this matter; of course social care will form part of the inquiry. It has been an incredibly important part of our response, and we have come a long way in the last 14 or 15 months. I pay tribute to all the people who work in social care, and their leadership, who have done an enormous amount to protect those who live in social care or are supported by it. We as a country have learned a huge amount about how to protect those who are vulnerable and those who are elderly. I also pay enormous tribute to the public, who have made huge sacrifices to protect and save the lives of those who live in social care.

My Lords, I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, to her position and look forward to hearing from her. I too pay tribute to the Minister and the Government, including my friend in the other place, Nadhim Zahawi, who has led this very effectively. It is so pleasing to see the uptake of vaccines in all parts of our countries and communities. While we are not privy to any internal findings of the report, does the Minister accept that any current or future review must address the detrimental economic impact on women, people with disabilities and those communities of minority heritage that suffered significant loss of life in the early days? Will such a report also therefore consider whether the lessons of the first wave were learned, and unnecessary deaths and infections subsequently prevented?

My Lords, it is not for me to define exactly what the scope of the inquiry will be but the noble Baroness’s points are extremely well made. I emphasise the importance of women. We are in the midst of consultation on the women’s health strategy. It is proving to be an incredibly impactful process and events are being held almost daily. I encourage all noble Lords to submit evidence to the health strategy on any issues that they feel strongly about. This could be a really impactful turning point in the way in which the health of women in this country is massively improved.

Does my noble friend agree that publishing an internal review right now would do nothing less than risking a dodgy dossier, of the sort we have seen before which shed far more confusion than light? Does he not think that the most important use of time right now would be in getting to grips with the anti-vaxxers who are spreading vicious lies, so that we can get on with vaccinating as many people as possible and bringing this country together as quickly as possible?

I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for his comments. He is entirely right. The battle against anti-vaxxers has been very successful. We have used a spirit of dialogue with people who have very personal and legitimate questions about a vaccine that requires an injection of fluids into their body. People quite reasonably have detailed questions about its impact. I applaud officials and partners of the Government who have been so effective at conveying the message on the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. It really has demonstrated the power of government and NHS communications at their best.

My Lords, I join the chorus of welcome to the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, who referred, as have other Peers, to the National Audit Office report on the handling of the pandemic. Commenting on that, Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, stressed the need to “learn lessons at speed”. The Minister has often expressed how useful and informative he has found the contributions in your Lordships’ House. Would those contributions not be better informed if Members could absorb and reflect on the findings of the internal review as the country and the world continue to deal with what is, certainly on the global level, a raging and deeply dangerous pandemic?

I am enormously grateful to the NAO for the powerful report that it has published. It said many complimentary things about the Government’s handling of the pandemic. I am grateful to noble Lords for the counsel and challenge that they have given here in this Chamber. I point out the vast amount of data and information that we have published, which is at the disposal of the public and parliamentarians. However, confidential advice from officials to Ministers on a means-of-working review is not the kind of thing that I think adds to this sort of debate, and for that reason it is most appropriately kept confidential.

My Lords, this morning on BBC News there has been a suggestion that the Indian variant has been due in large part to ineffective track and trace. Would the Minister like to comment on that?

My Lords, I do not think that is correct. The noble Baroness is right to ask the question because we should always challenge our systems, but track and trace has really delivered for the country when it comes to the containment of the variants. We were extremely concerned about the Manaus variant. That was why we instigated Project Eagle, an intense application of testing in communities on a very large scale and forensic tracing, putting huge resources into tracking down the movements of those who tested positive with a VOC. We then had the South African variant, which has been successfully contained. We could not have imagined that an Indian VOC of this kind could make its way into this country with such high transmissibility, and I pay tribute to those working in track and trace who have bought us an enormous amount of time so that we can bring in surge testing and surge vaccination to contain and minimise the spread of this variant.