Lesson planning

Glenys Thornton on ensuring the government is better prepared for handling what remains of the Covid-19 crisis

Tonight’s Lords debate on Covid-19 regulations is taking place the wrong time. Peers are being asked to retrospectively approve amendments for a second time, despite them being updated twice since coming into effect. We will not have the opportunity to debate these further changes for a few weeks yet.

he regulations before us today were created and signed into law on 13th May and discussed in the Commons on 10th June. It is far too late to make any difference to these regulations, which include the closure of zoos and safari parks – a decision which the government has now reversed. But the debate does present another opportunity for us to try to hold ministers to account for their poor handling of the pandemic.

It is difficult to know where to start, given the government seems reluctant to answer questions clearly and continues to parrot platitudes about how hard they and everyone else are working. We know and accept this fact, and Labour has been pretty clear that we want the government to succeed in tackling this horrific virus. But it is hard to keep your counsel when faced with a Lords health minister who dismisses questions about effectiveness and leadership as undermining the national effort.

While Parliament did not hear a statement about the changes, the media did – from the Prime Minister. That might not seem a big deal in the middle of crisis, but it means we have neither seen the supporting scientific advice or an impact assessment. The government has not laid a document setting out how their five tests on relaxation have been met. The Joint Biosecurity Council has not reduced the threat level. And the MoD’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Dame Angela McLean has stated that changes to lockdown, as modelled, need a highly effective track, trace, and isolate system to be in place. It doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence.

In global terms, the UK has experienced one of the highest death rates from Covid-19. While the official total is just over 40,000, ONS data suggests we have seen more than 50,000 excess deaths during the period of the crisis. And the mortality rate has been more than twice as high in the most deprived areas of England compared to the wealthiest. 

The government has been criticised over PPE and ventilator procurement, and the timing and implementation of the lockdown. Older citizens appear to have been sacrificed in their care homes to the slow lock down and lack of testing. Children’s education and mental health is in jeopardy because of the lack of leadership and resources in education. Meanwhile, the state of the economy is deeply worrying, with the OECD suggesting that the UK's fall in GDP for this year will be worse than that of every other industrialised country.

Covid-19 has also laid bare the structural inequalities at the core of our democracy. Hidden under the headline figures are huge differences in the death rates among specific groups within the UK population, especially those from BAME communities. Other traits correlated with increased risk of death include lower socioeconomic status, age, and the presence of certain underlying health conditions (for example, diabetes). An early report by the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre, finds that despite BAME people comprising only 14% of the UK population, they constitute 35% of all hospitalised patients.

Given all the above concerns, a crisis of this scale will warrant a full public inquiry - but that will be complex and take time. In the short-term and as a precursor to that enquiry, we need a rapid exercise in learning lessons to ensure government is better prepared for a potential second wave of infection – and to better understand how to hold it at bay.

Baroness Glenys Thornton is Shadow Health Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @GlenysThornton

Published 15th June 2020

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