'Carousel of chaos': UK leaders' preparation for pandemic criticised in Covid inquiry

The UK Covid-19 Inquiry, which will investigate how the government handled the pandemic has officially begun ITV News Political Correspondent Romilly Weeks has the latest.

UK leaders "stand accused of presiding over a carousel of chaos" due to its lack of preparedness for the pandemic, said a lawyer giving evidence at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

Two years after then-prime minister Boris Johnson announced a public inquiry would be set up, chairwoman Baroness Heather Hallett formally opened the first substantive hearing, in London, on Tuesday.

She vowed that those who suffered in the pandemic will "always be at the heart of the inquiry".

Evidence started with accounts from devastated families who said they "lost everything' during the pandemic.

Lawyers then went on to accuse the government of not being prepared for the pandemic. It was heard lockdown was given "very little thought" as the government was distracted by Brexit.

Baroness Hallett said she intends to answer three key questions in the Inquiry: was the UK properly prepared for the pandemic, was the response appropriate, and can lessons be learned for the future?

Here's how day one played out.

The UK was not 'very well prepared at all'

Hugo Keith KC, the inquiry's lead lawyer, said the UK may not have been "very well prepared at all" to deal with the pandemic.

He said the nation was "taken by surprise" by "significant aspects" of Covid, which has been recorded on 226,977 death certificates.

In his opening statement, Mr Keith said near the start of the pandemic, in March 2020, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), along with the three devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, published a Covid-19 action plan "setting out how they planned to tackle the coronavirus outbreak".

He said: "Even at this stage before hearing the evidence it is apparent that we might not have been very well prepared at all."

Boris Johnson announced a public inquiry would be set up two years ago. Credit: PA

Mr Keith said the significant risks of pandemics had been long assessed and officials had planned for them.

"But fundamentally, in relation to significant aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic, we were taken by surprise," he added.

The lawyer said there is a need to question whether the health services were sufficiently funded or suffered from "under-investment" ahead of the pandemic that "left in its wake death, misery and incalculable loss".

Health inequalities and high levels of diabetes, respiratory illness, obesity and heart disease are also relevant to the state of the nation entering the pandemic, according to Mr Keith.

Mr Keith said that key to the first phase of the inquiry is whether the "terrible outcomes" for people with existing health conditions and disabilities, as well as for people from deprived or ethnic minority backgrounds, were "foreseen or could have been mitigated".

The government was distracted by Brexit

Mr Keith said he fears the evidence indicates the "enormous" preparations for a possible no-deal Brexit in 2019 led to a "drain [in] resources and capacity" for emergency planning.

He said it is "clear" that preparing for the European Union (EU) departure "crowded out and prevented some or perhaps a majority of the improvements" that the government knew was necessary.

Claire Mitchell KC, who is representing bereaved families in Scotland, also said the UK’s preparedness was diminished by “years of changes to critical establishments and the effects of Brexit”.

She said: “Today it will be over three years since the first death from Covid-19 took place in this country and since then more than a quarter of a million people have died either directly or indirectly from Covid-19 as our leaders now stand accused of presiding over a carousel of chaos.”

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Families' testimonies

The inquiry played a 17-minute video showing people describing the devastating impact of coronavirus pandemic on themselves and their loved ones, including those who had died alone.

One woman cried as she told how her father had died but then, just a few days later, her sister also died.

She said she suffered guilt over the way they had died. Another woman said she had "lost everything", while others described suffering anxiety.

People told how they had not hugged each other at family funerals because they were sticking to Covid social distancing rules laid down by the government.

The hearing also heard that people could not be buried in outfits chosen by families because body bags had to remain sealed.

Members of the CBFFJ held a vigil before the inquiry began on Tuesday. Credit: PA

NHS doctors 'forced to improvise thanks to lack of planning and communication'

Failures to plan and prepare for personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare staff “led to the ludicrous spectacle of doctors making aprons from bin liners,” the Covid-19 Inquiry heard.

Brian Stanton, lawyer for the British Medical Association said: “Frontline staff often had to go without PPE, buy their own, use homemade, donated or expired items, and reuse single-use items. Staff also had to use items that were out of date, with multiple expired stickers visibly layered on top of each other.

“Many felt pressured to work without adequate protection, with consequences for their mental and physical health.”

He said local health chiefs were “repeatedly excluded” from pandemic planning, and were initially "learning about new policies and guidance from the televised 5pm daily briefings".

The Whatsapp row 'smacks of having something to hide' The row over the Cabinet Office’s refusal to hand over requested WhatsApp messages and documents to the Covid Inquiry “smacks of having something to hide,” a trade unions lawyer said.

Sam Jacobs, a lawyer representing the Trades Union Congress, warned that the “infighting” between Boris Johnson and the government “jars with the terrible losses” suffered during the pandemic.

His comments come after the government refused to handover documents, including Boris Johnson's diaries, to the Inquiry.

The Cabinet Office says this is to protect civil servants personal information. But former prime minister Johnson went ahead and sent over all the messages.

Members of CBFFJ watch a live stream of the UK Covid-19 Inquiry. Credit: PA

How long will the inquiry last?

The inquiry is split into six modules, with public hearings scheduled to conclude by summer 2026, and interim reports published before then.

Baroness Hallett is planning to publish reports for Module 1 and 2 (core UK decision-making and political governance) next year.

The first module of the inquiry is expected to last around six weeks, during which there will be a focus on whether the pandemic was properly planned for and "whether the UK was adequately ready for that eventuality".

Module 2 of the UK-wide inquiry will look at central government decision-making and examine issues from the perspective of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

A Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry, looking at the pandemic response in devolved areas in Scotland, is running at the same time, chaired by Lord Brailsford.

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