Will the Covid Inquiry bring profound and meaningful change, or will the government just continue to lie and coverup to save its own skin?
The long-awaited Covid inquiry got underway this week. As the grieving families of the 227,000 people who died from Covid in Britain are getting closer to finally learning the truth about the government’s handling of the pandemic, you can’t help but wonder if the truth will ever come out, or whether there will be more deliberate delays, deceits, and whitewashes ahead.
The £100 million inquiry is being split into six modules, which are scheduled to conclude by the summer of 2026. The first stage, which began this week, explores Britain’s resilience and preparedness before the pandemic.
Despite the sensitivity of the inquiry, its complexity, and the number of victims, what we have seen this week, is the investigation turned into yet another political and media circus – and it hasn’t even really got going yet.
‘Overblown Covid inquiry has turned into free-for-all for cynical lefties to attack Tory policies,’ was a headline in the Sun. The editorial continued that the ‘mammoth, overblown Covid inquiry is off to a dispiriting start.’
“Its sole focus should be on why public health bodies left us so unprepared, whether we are better placed now and whether lockdowns were too short, too long, or worthwhile at all — given the economic carnage caused, for reportedly few lives saved,” the article continues.
‘Few lives saved’ has been a common snipe in the right-wing media of late. On June 6, the Telegraph ran with the headline ‘Lockdown benefits’ a drop in the bucket compared to the costs.’ The piece talks about a ‘landmark study’ which concludes that lockdown saved ‘as few as 1,700 lives in England and Wales in spring 2020.’ The ‘landmark study’ the Telegraph speaks of is associated with the right-wing, Liz Truss-influencing think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). Jonas Herby, one of the ‘scientists’ involved in the study is an employee of the Charles-Koch-aligned, shadily funded American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), the sister think-tank of the IEA.
At PMQs this week, Keir Starmer slammed the ’economic extremists’ of the IEA, as he tore into Rishi Sunak for handing out honours to cronies, including aides linked to Partygate.
A little over a week before the Covid inquiry got underway, the IEA published what it refers to as a ‘new systemic review and meta-analysis’ which finds that ‘lockdowns failed to significantly reduce deaths.’
But it is a long way into the Telegraph’s article, before the newspaper notes the IEA’s involvement, stating: “The new study on the impact of lockdowns is published in a report by the Institute of Economic Affairs out on Monday.”
How 1,700 saved lives can be considered ‘too few’ is difficult to grasp, especially when you consider the hundreds of thousands of lives that were lost, and that Britain had one of the highest death rates in Europe.
But then this patronising and insensitive type of coverage can be expected from a media source which is criticised for being little different to the Express, the Mail and the Sun, which have stood accused of ‘fuelling prejudice’ through their ‘reckless’ reporting.
But more worrying still, is that while we might expect the likes of the Telegraph to cite such emotionally charged reports coming from dubious sources to whip up the intended messaging, the same study/report went on to be taken seriously by the supposed more liberal mainstream media outlets. The Independent, for example, wrote about the study that ‘casts doubt on the [lockdown] policy’s effectiveness.’
You also can’t help but fear that the flippancy and spurious nature of these reports published during the initial stages of the inquiry is setting a dangerous precedent for more deliberate deceptions and whitewashes in the months ahead.
To give this somewhat cynical forecast some credibility, we should look at the ongoing farcical fallout about the now infamous WhatsApp messages. In early June, Rishi Sunak was accused of attempting a ‘cover up’ for trying to obstruct the Covid inquiry’s request to have access to Boris Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApp messages and notebooks between the former PM and officials involved in the pandemic, including Sunak and cabinet ministers. The Cabinet Office even launched a judicial review to block requests from the inquiry to hand over the messages.
Elkan Abrahamson, a solicitor and public inquiry expert who represents the Covid bereaved group and had also acted for families involved in the 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster, warned that the legal battle could run ‘well into six figures.’
The government said it was ‘with regret’ it was launching a legal challenge but insisted that ‘important issues of principle’ were at stake. It stated that the request for the messages by the inquiry amounted to an “unwarranted intrusion” into other aspects of government work, as well as into “expectations of privacy.” But surely the most ‘important issues at stake’ are identifying the truth for the families of the deceased?
The government’s nervous response to the request aroused suspicion about its true intentions. Bereaved families and opposition parties criticised the move.
“The public deserves answers, not another cover-up,” said Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner.
Daisy Cooper, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, said the government’s judicial review was a “kick in the teeth” for the bereaved families of the tens of thousands of people who died from COVID during the pandemic.
Physician Karol Sikora didn’t mince his words, saying he fears that we are seeing “the beginnings of a great Covid cover-up, a disastrous whitewash.”
“The person with cancer now incurable because of unjustified delays” and “the families forced to say their final goodbye to loved ones over a mobile phone” are among those who “deserve pandemic answers,” writes Sikora.
Whether the Prime Minister is involved in some sort of coverup or not, his eagerness to defy the inquiry’s legitimate request for information that could prove vital in its outcome, proves that Sunak is failing to live up to his own ideals and promises of ‘integrity, professionalism and accountability.’
Coming off the back of a predecessor-but-one, whose premiership was marked by his inability to tell the truth, in what seems to be a deliberate move to halt full disclosure of what went on inside Downing Street during the health crisis, suggests that the dishonesty of Boris Johnson has infected the entire
government. And such manipulation doesn’t bode well for the Covid inquiry and its quest to identify the lessons learned from the pandemic response to create the impetus for meaningful change.
Some difficult questions for the Tories and the impact several major political decisions had on the country’s response to the pandemic have already surfaced in the first week of the inquiry.
Brexit ‘made the UK vulnerable to Covid’ the inquiry was told this week. Hugo Keith KC, counsel for the Covid inquiry, said Brexit-related planning and administrative processes hindered the country’s preparedness to tackle the pandemic.
Putting the government’s ‘Operation Yellowhammer’ contingency planning to deal with the possible impact of a No Deal Brexit under scrutiny, he said the “enormous amount” of work weakened the capacity to devise a pandemic response.
“The pandemic hit the UK just as it was leaving the EU. It is clear that such planning, from 2018 onwards, crowded out and prevented some or perhaps a majority of the improvements that central government itself understood were required to be made to resilience planning and preparedness,” said Keith.
On top of Brexit, warnings have been made that years of austerity overseen by David Cameron and George Osborne also left the UK ‘hugely unprepared’ for the pandemic. A report by the TUC found that funding cuts left health and social care “dangerously understaffed” and reduced its capacity to respond to the coronavirus crisis.
“Austerity cost the nation dearly,” said Paul Nowak, general secretary of the TUC. The British Medical Association had previously described austerity as ‘Covid’s little helper.’ Professor Sir Michael Marmot, a health inequalities expert who will provide evidence to the inquiry, said in late 2020: “We were in a very bad state – and then came the pandemic.”
Cameron and Osborne are to be called for cross-examination by the inquiry in the coming weeks. It is reported that they are likely to push back against the claims that years of austerity had ‘painful and tragic’ consequences on the country when Covid hit.
In response to the inquiry’s suggestions that Brexit and Tory austerity acted as contributors to the country’s shambolic Covid response, the Tory press has been fighting back. On June 13, Telegraph columnist Tim Stanley wrote a column about Brexit being ‘in the dock during the Covid inquiry.’ In it, he said “prepare yourselves for a long witch hunt that might finish off the Tories at the next election.”
Taking a similar condescending tone was Sun columnist and associate editor of the Spectator, Rod Liddle. He starts his column mocking the fact that the public hearings are not due to finish until 2026, when, he writes, ‘we’ll all be dead from the next pandemic.’ He proceeds to frame the inquiry as being a ‘useful gravy train’ for lawyers, while criticising Hugo Keith’s ‘decision that Brexit was to blame,’ for the UK’s lack of preparedness for Covid.
Liddle, a vocal Brexiteer, attempts to counter Keith’s verdict about Brexit and the pandemic – Hugo Keith incidentally is recognised as one of the legal profession’s leading KCs in Britain. But according to the right-wing columnist, Britain was among the best-prepared nations for the pandemic. Predictably, the author inflates the vaccine rollout, claiming part of its success was because we were ‘no longer in the hopelessly bureaucratic European Union.’ But his biggest beef lies with Baroness Heather Hallet, who he claims will fail to properly address whether lockdowns were necessary. Liddle then patronisingly drones on about his own opinion about lockdowns, and, low and behold, cites the same anti-lockdown IEA study, as a means of giving his argument some credibility.
In these anti-lockdown and depressingly cynical reports about the Covid inquiry, there is of course no mention of the multiple reports that show how lockdown saved millions or lives. Like the one by National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHCR), that estimates national lockdowns have saved more than three million lives in Europe. And the team from the Imperial College London’s study who said the “death toll would have been huge” without lockdown.
With the covid inquiry being painted by right-wing, anti-lockdown forces as some kind of overblown left-wing free-for-all, coupled with a government that is suspiciously refusing to step down on the release of what could be crucial information in the investigation, the prospect of the inquiry bringing meaningful political change remains dubious. Meanwhile, the families of the 270,000 people who died in Britain from Covid and want answers, are forced to endure another political and media circus.
Right-Wing Media Watch – The Tory feud and how Boris Johnson’s media allies can’t let go
Another big story of the week was, of course, the feud between Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson over the latter’s bid to put his allies in the House of Lords.
After Johnson was found to have knowingly misled Parliament, the question was whether Sunak would still allow the honours list to go ahead. Despite pressure on the PM to block the list, Downing Street said it had no plans to scrap Johnson’s resignation list, in which he gave honours to allies embroiled in Partygate.
Despite the backlash, and a general consensus that Johnson’s political career has come to a bitter end, much of the right-wing press remain intent on taking the disgraced former PM’s side.
The Express, which has never held back in its support of Boris Johnson, regularly running ‘Boris fighting on’ headlines, has been on Johnson-gushing overdrive all week.
‘Rishi’s talking rubbish!’ Boris Johnson blasts back at PM over peerage claims,’ was a headline on June 12, in an article heavily slanted towards defending Johnson and attacking Sunak.
Determined not to see the ex-prime minister out of politics for good, the same newspaper published an article citing Johnson’s cries of ‘kangaroo court’ and that the Privileges Committee should publish the ‘nonsense’ report immediately. According to the right-wing paper, Johnson told Express readers “I’ll be back,” despite the Partygate probe findings.
And as for the newspaper’s response to the findings of the Partygate probe, well just take a look at its frontpage on Thursday.
Showering similar affection over Johnson was the Telegraph. The newspaper, which is, of course, currently on the market for a buyer, has previously been accused of ‘slavish support of Boris Johnson.’
“Its editorial slavishness to the prime minister has turned it into such a laughing stock that it is now widely known as the “Daily Boris,” wrote Roy Greenslade in 2020, who is a former professor of journalism at City University with extensive journalistic experience.
In response to this week’s feud between Johnson and Sunak, the Telegraph was quick to report about Johnson allies launching a ‘coordinated revenge attack on Rishi Sunak.’
“Threat looms of more parliamentary resignations as premier accused of ‘dishonourable’ failure to back ex-PM,” states the article.
Meanwhile the Daily Mail, which, even as other press allies turned their backs on Johnson during the humiliating collapse of his leadership last summer, stood in firm defence of him, showed sympathy. The ‘sad downfall of Boris Johnson echoes that of a ‘Greek tragedy,’ was a headline on June 10.
“Boris Johnson’s sad and premature departure from the political stage he once bestrode has all the hallmarks of one of his beloved Greek tragedies,” reads the comment piece.
Put the violins away please. And it gets worse. Following Johnson’s desperate accusations that Tory MP and Partygate committee member, Sir Bernard Jenkin, is a hypocrite, claiming he also broke lockdown rules by allegedly attending a birthday party, the Mail ran an ‘expose’ on Jenkin apparently being an ‘enthusiastic nudist’, whose ‘hippy-style habits have been known publicly for decade.’
Does anyone really want to think about naked Tory MPs?
And take a look its frontpage the day after the Partygate report was released.
Note also the reference to the ‘erudite new columnist’ coming to the newspaper… Yes, Boris Johnson himself is to start a new job as a Daily Mail columnist. You really couldn’t make this stuff up.
Woke-bashing of the week – Patriotic, anti-woke, ‘parallel economy’ US marketplace promoted by Britain’s culture war stokers
If there’s one type of story that never goes unreported in the UK’s national right-wing press, it’s anti-woke activities happening in the United States.
Since it was launched in 2022, the US online marketplace Public Square – PublicSq. – has been hailed by the likes of the Daily Mail.
‘The anti-woke ‘patriotic’ marketplace set to go public in $200 million deal: Project backed by Don Jr. promises to promote firms that represent ‘freedom’ and vows to stop ‘giving’ money to businesses that hate them,’ splashed the Mail in February.
The article continues that since launching, the marketplace has pulled in nearly 50,000 ‘patriotic’ vendors and has processed millions of transactions. It’s even drawn in ‘conservative heavyweights like Donald Trump Jr., who serves as an investor and an advisor to the marketplace, and former Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters, the Mail informs its readers.
Several months later, the newspaper felt compelled to update readers on Public Square. In an ‘exclusive,’ the Mail spoke of how the ‘anti-woke ‘patriotic’ marketplace has DOUBLED its number of users since the Bud Light boycott over Dylan Mulvaney began.’
The report notes how the San-Diego based company’s aim is to build a ‘parallel economy’ where consumers do not have to buy anything from vendors whose political values don’t align with their own. PublicSq. comes as ‘leading conservative voices have stepped up their ‘war on woke,’ condemning investment firms who promise to include environmental, social and governance factors when they make decisions,’ the Mail continues.
The term ‘parallel economy’ has been gaining traction among right-wingers in both the US and Europe. It is being used to describe resistance to what the political right regard as a ‘woke’ economy, namely businesses and financial systems which are, in their view, associated with the left and prioritise progressive social causes.
By linking the two stories, that is welcoming the demise of Bud Light apparently for partnering with the trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney, while inflating the success of the Public Square marketplace, which prides itself on being ‘anti-woke,’ the Mail’s report feeds into the right-wing ideological narrative of victimhood and bizarre pleas to ‘stop giving your money to businesses that hate you.’
As factions of our media promote the anti-woke economy in the US, there are signs that a similar movement is gaining momentum in Britain. The Bank of England was accused of being ‘too focused on woke agenda’ after donating £10,000 to Stonewall. Earlier this year, research by, wait for it, the right-wing think-tank Policy Exchange, found that Britons are ‘cynical ‘and ‘tired’ of so-called attempts by ‘woke’ companies to force political views of employees and customers.
And where was the research published? In the Telegraph of course.
Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch