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Covid inquiry first phase ends with shot at ‘critically under-resourced’ NHS

Arguments over NHS funding and future pandemic preparations marked the end of the opening phase of public hearings

James Harrison
19 July 2023, 2.27pm

Failures in pandemic planning and preparedness hampered the response and placed healthcare workers and patients at increased risk when Covid-19 hit, according to the British Medical Association



Scathing warnings over government penny-pinching accompanied the curtain call for the first phase of the UK’s Covid-19 inquiry.

Over 23 days, the review’s opening module into ‘resilience and preparedness’ has heard from current and former ministers, civil servants and health experts on the state of Britain at the start of the outbreak.

But as inquiry chair Heather Hallett prepared to call time on the public hearings until October, arguments once again turned to the amount of money spent on pandemic preparations before coronavirus – and how much might be spent in the future.

“After six weeks of hearings, it is clear that the UK entered the pandemic with critically under-resourced and under-funded health and public health services,” Brian Stanton told today’s hearing on behalf of the British Medical Association (BMA).

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“There were repeated failures in pandemic planning and preparedness, including in relation to the PPE stockpile, and the implementation of recommendations and learning from previous pandemic planning exercises.

“These failures gravely hampered the pandemic response and placed doctors, other health care workers and patients at increased risk when the pandemic hit.”

According to a BMA survey of more than 600 doctors suffering long Covid symptoms, more than three quarters infected during the first wave of the pandemic believe they picked up the virus while working.

Of those, just 16% had access to the most protective FFP3 respirators.

Stanton added: “This lack of availability of FFP3 respirators was because cost considerations were prioritised ahead of safety, leaving doctors and healthcare workers inadequately protected.”

The inquiry has previously heard about low stocks of personal protective equipment (PPE) designed for Black medical staff.

Yesterday, lawyers representing families who lost loved ones during the pandemic took aim at David Cameron and George Osborne for the evidence they gave on the impact of their austerity programme.

Offering his closing submissions, Matthew Hill, representing the Government Office for Science, defended the approach of ministers in the years before Covid.

Earlier hearings at the inquiry saw the government under fire for having focused its preparations on the risk of a flu pandemic rather than a coronavirus outbreak.

But Hill argued planning should focus on “capabilities and scenarios, and not specific plans for specific types of pandemic”.

He added: “Although choices on allocation of resources will always remain political ones, this module of the inquiry provides an opportunity to reflect on the value of insurance against future risks that have the capacity to cause a large number of deaths and profound social upheaval.

“In some areas, the value of insuring against future risk is well understood – money spent on a nation’s security is not regarded as wasted if there turns out to be no need to fight a war.

“The effective protection of society from natural hazards requires a similar mentality and an understanding that natural hazards can be just as devastating as security threats.

“You may not need everything that you pay for. Innovation, whether scientific or technological, inevitably comes with failure and that has to be priced in.”

Closing submissions from the inquiry’s ‘core participants’ brought an end to the first module.

In her closing remarks, Hallett said she hoped to finalise and publish her report from the first module “by early summer next year”.

Public hearings for the inquiry’s second module on ‘decision-making across the UK’ are due to begin on October 3.

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