Covid-19 inquiry: former Prime Minister David Cameron due to give evidence at first ‘star’ hearing

The ex-Conservative leader will likely be asked about whether his government’s own pandemic plans were robust enough

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David Cameron is likely to be questioned about the effect of austerity measures on the UK’s readiness for pandemics when he appears at the Covid-19 public inquiry today (19 June).

The former Prime Minister is the first high-profile witness to take part in the hearings. Other members of his government - including ex-Chancellor George Osborne - will also give evidence this week.

What is the Covid inquiry?

With Covid recorded on nearly 227,000 death certificates, the inquiry was set up by Boris Johnson in May 2021 to learn lessons from the pandemic, and examine the way ministers responded to it. It’s independent and has statutory powers similar to those of a court.

Retired Court of Appeal judge Baroness Hallett, who’s chairing the process, is investigating six key topics. The first is looking at whether the UK was ready for a major public health crisis, whether it had the right resources and what risk management strategies were in place.

What will David Cameron be asked?

Cameron is expected to face questions on whether his government’s austerity programme affected the way the UK prepared for pandemics. Under austerity, funding for some public services was reduced in an effort to balance the UK’s budget.

On Friday (16 June), a report presented to the inquiry - co-written by the epideomologist Professor Sir Michael Marmot - concluded these funding cuts “had an adverse effect on health inequalities”.

It went on: “The UK entered the pandemic with its public services depleted, health improvements stalled and health among the poorest people in a state of decline”.

The head of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) Paul Nowak said Cameron had serious questions to answer. He added: “Make no mistake, austerity was a political choice – and one that left the UK hugely exposed to the pandemic”.

“Their policies weakened the foundations of our society by hollowing out our public services and shredding our safety net.

The ex-PM has already admitted mistakes were made in preparations for a virus like Covid. Speaking to Parliament’s National Security Strategy Committee two years ago, he said that a major outbreak of Ebola in West Africa in 2013 reminded governments around the world of the “dangers of pandemics”.

Covid inquiry chair Baroness Hallett opened the public hearings last week Covid inquiry chair Baroness Hallett opened the public hearings last week
Covid inquiry chair Baroness Hallett opened the public hearings last week

But he added: “The focus was very much on influenza rather than on respiratory diseases. There was a pretty good flu pandemic plan, but it was a flu plan rather than a respiratory diseases plan”.

Cameron’s actions during the coronavirus crisis have also come under scrutiny. In 2021, reports emerged that he lobbied the then-Chancellor Rishi Sunak to expand a Covid emergency loan scheme so it would cover a financial services firm he advised - Greensill Capital. The company later collapsed; subsequent inquiries concluded that Cameron broke no rules.

Who else will the inquiry hear from this week?

Baroness Hallett will take evidence from other senior figures in Johnson’s administration on Tuesday (20 June) - including ex-Chancellor George Osborne and Oliver Letwin, who was the minister for government policy between 2010 and 2016. The current Chancellor and former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt will appear on Wednesday afternoon (21 June).

Top public health figures who became household names during the pandemic are also due at the inquiry later this week. England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance - who was until recently the UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser - will give evidence on Thursday (22 June).

What happened in week one of the inquiry?

Opening the public hearings last week, Hallett said she hoped to answer three questions:

“Was the United Kingdom properly prepared for a pandemic?"

“Was the response to it appropriate?"

“And can we learn lessons for the future?”

She also paid tribute to everyone involved with the inquiry so far, acknowledging that some felt it hadn’t “sufficiently recognised their loss or listened to them in the way they feel appropriate”.

Relatives who lost loved ones to Covid gathered outside the inquiry ahead of the first public hearing Relatives who lost loved ones to Covid gathered outside the inquiry ahead of the first public hearing
Relatives who lost loved ones to Covid gathered outside the inquiry ahead of the first public hearing

The inquiry’s top lawyer, Hugo Keith KC, suggested the UK was “taken by surprise” in significant aspects of the pandemic. He said it was apparent - even before any evidence was heard - that “we might not have been very well prepared at all”.

Lawyers representing other so-called ‘core participants’ - the people or groups who have a specific interest in the inquiry’s work - also gave statements.

Pete Weatherby KC, from Covid Bereaved Families for Justice UK, said the evidence would likely show a “lack of responsibility in government, with little or no ministerial leadership (causing) a slow reaction. And with a pandemic, time is of the essence and lost time is measured in lost lives”.

What about Boris Johnson and his WhatsApp messages?

The government is taking the inquiry to court to stop Baroness Hallett seeing unedited - or ‘unredacted’ - copies of Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp exchanges with senior officials and some of the ex-PM’s notebooks. Ministers are worried if she’s able to read them all, it will have a chilling effect on future decision making because senior figures in government may no longer feel able to speak freely.

Johnson later gave Hallett the WhatsApps himself - insisting he had nothing to hide. Some messages, however, are available only on a mobile phone last switched on since 2021 when it emerged the number had been publicly available for some time. Efforts are being made to access the phone securely.

Is Rishi Sunak worried about the messages?

Asked whether he was concerned that something in the messages might cause him embarrassment, the Prime Minister said: “No, not at all. I as well am co-operating and providing information to the inquiry. It’s actually taking a lot of my own time, but that’s right that I do that”.

“The work that the inquiry is doing is important and necessary, and those involved should co-operate in a spirit of candour and transparency. That’s what I’m doing and that’s what the government’s doing”.

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