A gaping hole in the Covid Inquiry’s remit

Michael Gove at the Covid-19 Inquiry in London
Michael Gove at the Covid-19 Inquiry in London

We asked in this column yesterday why so little interest in the origin of the Covid virus was being shown by the judicial inquiry into the pandemic. Our answer arrived swiftly when Michael Gove became the most senior Cabinet minister so far to give evidence.

In his exchanges with Hugo Keith KC, the inquiry counsel, he said that “a significant body of judgment ... believes that the virus itself was man-made”. Mr Gove advanced this proposition to explain why there was confusion in the Government at the onset of the pandemic.

Not only were the full effects of the virus unknown, but its possible manufacture in a Chinese laboratory presented another challenge to which science was required to adjust. However, Mr Gove did not get very far with his conjecture. Mr Keith intervened to say such matters were beyond the scope of the inquiry and as the issue was “somewhat divisive ... we are not going to go there”.

He is right to say that the origins of Covid are not in the inquiry’s terms of reference, which is a gaping hole in its remit. The session with Mr Gove focused on his greater willingness to lock down the country earlier and harder than Boris Johnson wished to countenance.

Once again, the impression was given of an obdurate leader resisting pressure to shut down the economy and prohibit social interaction, almost as though these were the inevitable responses to a pandemic. Mr Keith said there had been quarantines and self-imposed isolations in the past, implying a lockdown was an extension of these time-honoured measures. But it was different in scale by an order of magnitude.

No one planned for a lockdown and nor were any plans set down for the impact, either at the time or subsequently. The reason we locked down was, as George Osborne told the inquiry, because China did and everyone else followed suit.

But why did Beijing order such a draconian response? One reason might have been a knowledge that this had escaped from a Wuhan research laboratory and they were themselves unsure of its likely trajectory so were taking no chances.

This is why an inquiry that fails at least to examine the origin of the virus and focuses entirely on the response is missing a big piece of the jigsaw. The chairman, Lady Hallett, should petition the Government to expand the terms of reference so that it can be examined.

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