Covid-19 public inquiry: David Cameron admits ‘mistakes’ were made in UK pandemic preparation

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The former Prime Minister said the government focused on flu pandemics rather than on pandemics of respiratory diseases, such as Covid-19.

David Cameron has admitted that his government made “mistakes” when it came to preparing the UK for a possible pandemic.

The former Prime Minister, who was in office between 2010 and 2016, was on Monday (19 June) grilled on how his actions impacted the country’s response to the pandemic as part of the UK’s Covid-19 public inquiry. While Cameron tried to argue some of his actions, like setting up the National Security Council, had helped the UK deal with “risks” such as pandemics, he also conceded that there had been “failures” - namely, his administration’s “focus” on flu.

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“Much more time was spent on pandemic flu rather than on potential pandemics of other more respiratory diseases, like Covid turned out to be.” Cameron said. “This is so important because so many consequences follow from that.”

Questioning why this was the case, counsel to the inquiry, Kate Blackwell KC, pulled up a note from a meeting of experts in 2015 - when Cameron was Prime Minister - which warned of the “clear and present danger” of coronavirus threats. Cameron responded by saying he doesn’t recall a specific conversation in which this was raised to him, he again remarked that “it was a mistake not to look more at the range of different types of pandemic.”

The “failing”, he continued, was “not asking more questions” - particularly about “asymptomatic transmission” of “highly contagious” viruses, something we saw with Covid-19. He said he is still “wrestling” with why there was not enough focus on this and questions whether there were “adequate follow-ups” to meetings on these issues.

Video grab of former prime minister David Cameron giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry at Dorland House in London. Credit: UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA WireVideo grab of former prime minister David Cameron giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry at Dorland House in London. Credit: UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA Wire
Video grab of former prime minister David Cameron giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry at Dorland House in London. Credit: UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA Wire | UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA Wire

Cameron was also interrogated over the impact that his era of “austerity” had on how the country handled the pandemic - asked whether cuts to public services had left the NHS unable to deal with a crisis like coronavirus. Prior to Cameron’s evidence session, the British Medical Association (BMA) said the former Prime Minister “must be taken to task” over austerity - arguing that his administration’s spending “decisions” had left the health service “so unprepared”.

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“Do you accept that the health budgets over the time of your government were inadequate and led to a depletion in [the NHS’s] ability to provide an adequate service?” Blackwell asked.

But Cameron strongly refuted this, arguing that debt and the budget deficit needed to be brought down so that the UK could cope in the future should a crisis such as a pandemic arise. “If you lose control of your debt and you lose control of your deficit and you lose control of your economy, then you end up cutting the health service,” he said. “That’s what happened in Greece.”

He added that “of course” he - and “everyone” - would like to spend more on the NHS, but insisted he “believe[d] and still believe[s] it was essential to get the British economy and public finances back to health” so that the country could tackle a future crisis.

However, Blackwell continued by pointing to warnings which leading figures in the health sector issued to the government about the crisis the NHS was in during Cameron’s time in office. She read out a statement by Nuffield Post from 2016, which said that the combination of “ongoing austerity”, “longer waiting times”, and “slowing improvement in some areas of quality” suggests the NHS is “heading for serious problems”.

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“It seems likely that a system under such immense pressure will be unable at some point in some services to provide care to the standards that patients and staff alike expect,” the statement concluded. Cameron admitted then that there were “pressures” on the NHS, but also tried to point to some of the “successes” during his tenure - such as high public satisfaction, a decrease in hospital infections, and an increase in the number of diagnostic tests being carried out.

Responding to Cameron’s comments on austerity, TUC General Secretary Paul Nowak argued that the former Prime Minister is “in denial about the huge damage caused by his austerity policies - both to public services and the UK economy.” He continued: “The evidence is clear that the cuts he imposed massively damaged the readiness and resilience of our public services, and shredded our social security safety net - leaving millions vulnerable.”

Former prime minister David Cameron leaving after giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry at Dorland House in London. Credit: Jeff Moore/PA WireFormer prime minister David Cameron leaving after giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry at Dorland House in London. Credit: Jeff Moore/PA Wire
Former prime minister David Cameron leaving after giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry at Dorland House in London. Credit: Jeff Moore/PA Wire | Jeff Moore/PA Wire

The arguably most tense and emotive part of Cameron’s session came at the end, when the Scottish Covid Bereaved group was given the chance to ask a few questions. In a hard-hitting moment, Claire Mitchell KC, representing, asked Cameron if he thought his government’s “failure to plan for the economic impacts [of pandemics] on individuals and businesses” had played a role in the “loss of lives”.

“I am desperately sorry about the loss of life,” Cameron said. “So many people lost people close to them. There has been a lot of heartache, and obviously that continues. People suffered in all sorts of ways through the pandemic and that is why this inquiry is so important.”

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He continued by saying he has tried to be as “frank” as possible about what his government did to help prepare for pandemic threats - but also as “frank” as possible about “the things that were missed”. What he most “struggles” with, the former Prime Minister added, is “why these things were missed”, something he said he is sure the public inquiry will “spend a lot of time on”.

The Covid-19 public inquiry is currently in its first module, where chair Baroness Hallett is considering the UK’s preparation for a pandemic. Also on the witness list for this coming week are former Chancellor George Osborne, England’s chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty, and former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.

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