Britain entered Covid with 'depleted' public services, inquiry hears

Britain entered pandemic with ‘depleted’ public services, Covid inquiry hears

  • An ‘expert opinion’ report was filed as part of the first week of public hearings
  • It was written by Sir Michael Marmot and Professor Clare Bambra 

The UK entered the coronavirus pandemic with ‘depleted’ public services and widening health inequalities, the Covid inquiry has heard.

A report prepared jointly by professors Sir Michael Marmot, an expert in epidemiology and director of the University College London Institute of Health Equity, and Clare Bambra, an expert in public health from Newcastle University, said Government austerity policies impacted the health of the nation in the lead up to the pandemic.

The report was filed as part of the first week of public hearings in the Covid inquiry, which is exploring the UK’s preparedness for a pandemic.

The ‘expert opinion’ report highlighted health inequalities in the UK, including regional differences when it comes to things such as life expectancy and the number of deaths which can be impacted by the quality of healthcare.

A report prepared jointly by professors Sir Michael Marmot (pictured), an expert in epidemiology and director of the University College London Institute of Health Equity, and Clare Bambra, an expert in public health from Newcastle University, said Government austerity policies impacted the health of the nation in the lead up to the pandemic

The room where the public inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic is taking place (PA)

Kate Blackwell KC, counsel to the inquiry, read from the report, which said Government austerity policies after 2010 had ‘an adverse effect on health inequalities’.

The report concluded: ‘It is plausible that adverse trends in the social determinants of health since 2010 led to the worsening health picture in the decade before the onset of the pandemic.

‘In short, the UK entered the pandemic with its public services depleted, health improvements stalled, health inequalities increased and health among the poorest people in a state of decline.’

Sir Michael told the inquiry that social care and public health spending had gone down before the pandemic, especially in the most deprived parts of the country.

The mind-boggling diagram, created by the Inquiry to reflect structures in 2019, links together more than 100 organisations involved in preparing the country for any future infectious threats. This includes the Cabinet Office, Department of Health and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) — a panel of leading experts who guided ministers through the pandemic 

Government data up to June 4 shows the number of Covid cases recorded since March 2020. As many as 70 witnesses will contribute to the first module on pandemic preparedness. Wednesday’s session will this afternoon hear from Dr Charlotte Hammer, an epidemiologist from Cambridge University and Professor Jimmy Whitworth, an infectious diseases expert from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Government data up to May 12 shows the number of deaths of people whose death certificate mentioned Covid as one of the causes, and seven-day rolling average. Baroness Hallett told the inquiry she intends to answer three key questions: was the UK properly prepared for the pandemic, was the response appropriate, and can lessons be learned for the future?

READ MORE: Make room for Dr Doom and Prof Gloom! Whitty and Valance will be hauled in front of Covid Inquiry next week – as well as David Cameron, George Osborne and Jeremy Hunt

Citing the Government’s own data, he said it showed that the ‘greater the deprivation, the greater the need, the greater the need, the greater the reduction in local authority spend in general … That will damage the health of people, other things equal, and will contribute to inequalities in health.’

Sir Michael later said it was his general view ‘that if you look at the evidence from previous pandemics, including the current one that we’re considering, that the impact of the pandemic is very much influenced by pre-existing inequalities in society, including inequalities in health.’

He said it was not just about ‘whether there was a report somewhere in Government about planning for a pandemic, you’ve got to plan for better health and narrow health inequalities, and that will protect you in the pandemic.’

The inquiry heard how Prof Bambra had reviewed reports and material from Government and public health exercises such as Winter Willow in 2007, Alice in 2016 and Broad Street in 2018, but none of them included consideration of health inequalities or how specific groups might be at risk.

Will Boris Johnson be quizzed? Who else will be involved? And how long will it take? EVERYTHING you need to know about the Covid inquiry

Why was the inquiry set up?

There has been much criticism of the UK government’s handling of the pandemic, including the fact the country seemed to lack a thorough plan for dealing with such a major event.

Other criticisms levelled at the Government include allowing elderly people to be discharged from hospitals into care homes without being tested, locking down too late in March 2020 and the failures of the multi-billion NHS test and trace.

Families of those who lost their loved ones to Covid campaigned for an independent inquiry into what happened.

Then Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was right that lessons are learned, announcing in May 2021 that an inquiry would be held.

Will Boris Johnson be quizzed? If so, when?

It’s not clear exactly when, or if, the former Prime Minister will be quizzed. No full list of witnesses has been published yet.

But given he was in charge of the Government for almost the entirety of the pandemic, his insights will prove central to understanding several aspects of the nation’s response.

If called forward as a witness, he would be hauled in front of the committee to give evidence.

What topics will the inquiry cover?

There are currently six broad topics, called modules, that will be considered by the inquiry.

Module 1 will examine the resilience and preparedness of the UK for a coronavirus pandemic.

Module 2 will examine decisions taken by Mr Johnson and his then team of ministers, as advised by the civil service, senior political, scientific and medical advisers, and relevant committees.

The decisions taken by those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will also be examined.

Module 3 will investigate the impact of Covid on healthcare systems, including on patients, hospitals and other healthcare workers and staff.

This will include the controversial use of Do Not Attempt Resuscitation notices during the pandemic.

Module 4 meanwhile will assess Covid vaccines and therapeutics. 

It will consider and make recommendations on a range of issues relating to the development of Covid vaccines and the implementation of the vaccine rollout programme in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. 

Modules 5 and 6 will open later this year, investigating government procurement and the care sector. 

Who is in charge of the inquiry?

Baroness Heather Hallett is in the charge of the wide-reaching inquiry. And she’s no stranger to taking charge of high profile investigations.

The 72-year-old ex-Court of Appeal judge was entrusted by Mr Johnson with chairing the long-awaited public probe into the coronavirus crisis.

Her handling of the inquiry will be subject to ferocious scrutiny.

Until Baroness Hallett was asked to stand aside, she was acting as the coroner in the inquest of Dawn Sturgess, the 44-year-old British woman who died in July 2018 after coming into contact with the nerve agent Novichok.

She previously acted as the coroner for the inquests into the deaths of the 52 victims of the July 7, 2005 London bombings.

She also chaired the Iraq Fatalities Investigations, as well as the 2014 Hallett Review of the administrative scheme to deal with ‘on the runs’ in Northern Ireland.

Baroness Hallett, a married mother-of-two, was nominated for a life peerage in 2019 as part of Theresa May’s resignation honours.

How long will it take?

When he launched the terms of the inquiry in May 2021, Mr Johnson said he hoped it could be completed in a ‘reasonable timescale’.

But, realistically, it could take years.

It has no formal deadline but is due to hold hearings across the UK until at least 2025. 

Interim reports are scheduled to be published before public hearings conclude by summer 2026.

The Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war began in 2009 but the final, damning document wasn’t released until 2016.

Meanwhile, the Bloody Sunday inquiry took about a decade.

Should a similar timescale be repeated for the Covid inquiry, it would take the sting out of any criticism of any Tory Government failings.

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