Session 8: Summary 
Impact on the population (2) 

Families, NHS staff, mental health

Dr Wendy Savage

Wendy Savage, President and the founder member of Keep our NHS Public welcomed people to Session 8 of the Inquiry, stating that KONP has called the Inquiry now, because we had doubted that the Government would start an Inquiry and learn the lessons from their policy failures, which have led to the UK having the highest COVID death rate of any OECD country and over 150,000 deaths.

  

Since the KONP inquiry has begun the Prime Minister has announced an Inquiry in the spring of 2022, but, Wendy Savage asked, does this mean they start to prepare for an Inquiry, or start taking evidence then? Both times are too late. She stated that we support the Bereaved Families for justice demand for an earlier start. 


The dual select committee's questioning of Dominic Cummings suggests that the Prime Minister's reluctance to take COVID seriously made for a delay in the lockdown in March 2020 and an estimated 28,000 unnecessary deaths. Cummings' evidence that Matt Hancock reassured the Prime Minister that patients would be tested before being released from hospital to care has been denied by Mr. Hancock. But NHS documents suggest that this did happen, before there was an adequate testing regime in place. The dysfunctional nature of the Downing Street office was presented in a compelling way which was devastating.

 

The country needs and deserves leadership of integrity, with actions based on public health principles and the values of the NHS frontline staff.

Michael Mansfield QC

Michael Mansfield thanked all viewers who have stayed with the Inquiry since Day 1. The Inquiry has happened over 9 sessions since 24 February. Witnesses have been carefully examined and there is a large amount of written material. These will be published in due course and a report published. There has been a gradual and incremental surge towards the need for a judicial public inquiry due to pressure from the Bereaved Families, but also Johnson must have been concerned about the kind of allegations that have been made over the past week by Dominic Cummings.

 

Michael Mansfield stated ‘We're not here at the moment to decide who's telling the truth except the British public, I'm quite sure having been treated and subjected to this almost circus of politicians, have had enough of the lies…. They can't all be telling the truth. And that should be discovered now, not next year, and not when the report comes out five years after that in 2027.’

 

The Bereaved Families are quite right to say a full inquiry is needed now. 

 

Michael Mansfield stated: ‘Well, the now is performed by us, asking those questions. And obviously inferentially where witnesses do not appear having been invited, then they must be on notice that adverse inferences could be drawn from their non appearance.’

 

Witness 1: Professor Stephen Reicher
Professor of Social Psychology, Univ. of St Andrews; participant in SPI-B (SAGE) and Advisory Group to Scottish CMO on Covid-19; member of Independent SAGE
Article: 'Two psychologies of the crisis'

Professor Reicher’s evidence was mainly concerned with the public’s response to the pandemic, government messaging, and how poor government messaging affected the public. He answered questions about the way forward. 

 

The idea that the public will not stick to the rules, therefore lockdown should be delayed

Stephen Reicher had written an article in March 2020 (See Article 1) in response to the notion put about by Government that the public would not be able to stick with restrictions, which therefore should be delayed. He told the Inquiry that:

  • British people in particular would not cope with lockdown, This idea had been asserted early on and attributed to behavioural scientists. This was not true.

  • The Government throughout has regarded the public as a problem.

  • Mutual support: research on emergencies finds that people tend to come together and support each other. This is critical. The role of good Government is to support and scaffold that sense of community; what bad Government does is undermine it. 

  • Adherence to restrictions: this has occurred to a very high degree. Early on, over 90% of people were adhering. A study from King's College London showed that about half of people were suffering but nonetheless, they continued, not from self interest, but because they wanted the community to come out of the situation well. There are a number of studies since, which show that that sense of community is critical to the response. 

  • Volunteers and collective resilience: Government response has been based on a misunderstanding of people as fragile. In fact people stepped up. The state did not have the resources for an event this size - not enough police officers, local government officers etc. There have been an estimated 12 million volunteers and over 4000 mutual aid groups. This development and sense of collective community has been critical. 

  • Trust in the Government: this started off with high trust figures, at about 80%, but fell to about 30%, or lower because they differentiated themselves from the public and created a sense of one law for us, and another for them. The symbol of that was Cummings and the Government’s defence of Cummings. 

  • Narratives of blame: The Government has developed a narrative which says it is people’s fault when they get ill because they are not vaccinated, young people ‘kill their grannies’ by breaking the rules. Blaming is counterproductive and encourages people to blame each other, to say the problem lies in a particular group. Blame fractures the public's relationship with each other. 

  • People mainly get infected because they are more exposed, because they are more vulnerable, which is why poor people, ethnic minorities, are more likely to be infected, to go into ICUs and to die. 

  • Breaking the lockdown: An early study showed that poor people, ethnic minorities were three to six times more likely to break the lockdown due to not being able to stay at home, having to go to work and put food on the table. 

  • Supporting people to do the right thing: The answer is not blame, threaten and fine people, but to give support and give them the means to do the right thing. The Government have never supported people to do the right thing, never given people the support they need fully to be able to stay at home, to self isolate if infected. 

  • The Government narrative of responsibility is effectively saying, We wash our hands of this,it's over to you. And if things go wrong, it's your fault. 

 

Stephen Reicher told the Inquiry that to stay at home when you’re infected you need three things:

  • the information and the knowledge to know when you need to stay at home. Government communications have always been ‘woeful’. 

  • Social norms need to be created where you're heroic not if you're struggling to work when poorly and under the weather, but you’re heroic when you stay at home and don't go in to work if you are unwell with Covid

  • There needed to be decent sick pay and decent support to be able to self isolate. 

 

Government messaging
A series of publicly available papers from Spi-B, the Government behavioural science advisory group put forward the following ideas:

  • Co-production: if you want to bring people on board, don't do things to them, do things with people

  • Clarity: any communication must be clear so that after people listen to it and know what they're supposed to do. Polling showed that 96% of people understood ‘stay at home’, whereas ‘stay alert’ was understood by only 31% of people.

  • Messaging isn’t just what you say but what you do: for example, opening pubs but saying ‘be a bit careful’. People do not adhere to safe behaviours if they perceive there’s a low risk. If a pub is open it sends a message that things can’t be too dangerous, or for example the Prime Minister talking about Freedom Day on 4 July 2020. 

This year the same mistakes are being repeated. 

 

What is needed is:

  • A realistic understanding of risks

  • Knowledge of what can be done to mitigate risks to give people  a sense of efficacy that they can do something about it. 

  • Lack of these have been a central problem of Government communications. 

 

What to do in the face of a third wave  

Stephen Reicher told the Panel that:

  • At present we are in a situation of decision-making under conditions of uncertainty, which is always difficult because there's no perfect answer and where every decision carries risks. If the Government  decides to open up, and there is a spike in infections and those infections have serious consequences, then we will be in very deep trouble.  So there is a very real risk if we carry on.  If we pause, and it turns out that the Delta variant isn't that serious, then we've held people back a little bit but the balance of risks is such that caution would be sensible. 

  • We are in this position because the Government, when it set out its so-called roadmap talked about data, not dates. But in practice, data not dates turning into dates not data. We have seen this over and over. Once you set up dates as absolute, people begin to invest in them both practically and emotionally. 

  • The Government has invested so much political capital whatever the data, it then becomes almost impossible for them to back out. 

  • The Government deals with that by contradictory messaging:  they say you can travel internationally, but don't travel, you can hug but don't hug. 

  • The Government has ‘ignored evidence in multiple ways from multiple people’ for example in recent weeks eg in September when SAGE called for a circuit breaker almost to manage and suppress data. 

  • Managing data releases: For example Public Health England briefed so called ‘good’ news about the Delta variant , when in fact they were saying the Government criterion had not been met, and the documents were released at 10.30am on Saturday night during the Eurovision Song Contest.

  • Blocking data: Evidence on infections in schools which unions and parents have asked for has not been released; it seems that Number 10 is involved. It is known that infections are increasing in schools and it is surmised that the failure to release data is because it goes against a policy decision, with little scientific basis, to take away the use of masks in the school. 

  • ‘The Government has got to a stage where it's not just spinning or ignoring information, it's actually politically managing the release of information and even suppressing information. I think that's very serious indeed.’

 

When you take things away from the NHS, they go badly as with our test and trace system which should be based on local public health where local contact tracers know their patch, are trusted, shoe leather epidemiology. Why have we spent 37 billion pounds on a system, which isn't fit for purpose?

  • When you roll things out through the NHS, like vaccines, things go remarkably well. And if anybody has saved, the UK in terms of our pandemic response, and saved the Government, it’s clearly the NHS, and yet the NHS isn't rewarded, it's punished for it. 

 

Staff burnout, moral injury

Stephen Riecher told the Inquiry that:

  • Psychological work on burnout shows that it is not workload, per se, although it is part of it, but what undermines people is the sense that however much you work and however much effort you put in, you still can't do your job properly, you still can't achieve the thing to which you've dedicated yourself. It is almost as if what you do turns against you, the situation that even though you work all you can, it's undermined. 

  • For example it can be  undermined when, when you are put in impossible situations,  where for example you've got to make choices between people having urgent cancer surgery, and beds for people coming in with COVID .These things are profoundly demoralising and can lead to profound burnout. 

  • On the NHS offer of a 1%  pay rise: money can tell you how much you're valued. And for low paid staff it can be the difference between being able to survive and not being able to survive. ‘And I think, in a sense, the 1% is almost more insulting than giving nothing at all. It implies that this is some sort of reward.’

  • Research demonstrates that feeling part of a group and taking collective action, is good for physical as well as mental health. Fightng against things is also a health intervention for yourself. 

 

Is it ever going to be safe?

  • Stephen Reicher told the Inquiry that:
    The Government has always been reactive to the virus (instead of proactive). Infections have spiked, restrictions have been imposed, infections have gone down, restrictions have lifted, nothing has been done, infections have spiked again.

  • Independent SAGE has always argued for  maximum infection suppression - an integrated strategy to bring down the levels of infection through a better test control system, through support for self isolation, through making environments safe in the sense of being properly ventilated, and so on, so infections cab be brought low enough. Then you can deal with outbreaks in targeted ways through contact tracing, support, you don’t need lockdown fpr whole communities. Lockdown is a failure of infection suppression. 

  • Vaccines are a critical  element. People talk in terms of binaries: that vaccines either work or they don't work. They work pretty well but they are not perfect. At present (16 June  2021) less than half of people have got two doses, and if you include children over the age of 12, it's something like a third who have got two doses. 

  • When everybody is vaccinated, we are in a position then to have an outbreak control type of approach, which doesn't need full restrictions, which does need various forms of support.

  • We need to move from rule following to people understanding how the virus transmits, what makes a situation hazardous, and to able to act in order to avoid it as far as possible. 

  • After the Spanish flu pandemic there were various health and societal changes eg  a fresh air movement, housing design, building regulations, cultural activities.

  • We should do everything possible to support global vaccination. One of the great scandals is the way our Government is standing in the way of lifting the payments for vaccines. It’s  not just a matter of redistributing vaccines we've already got ,but increasing vaccine production around the world, so that everybody can be protected. 


  

Witnesses 2 and 3: Dr Rachel Sumner and Dr Rlaine Kinsella
Joint Witness statement

Dr Rachel Sumner is Senior Lecturer in Psychology, School of Natural & Social Sciences, Univ. of Gloucestershire
Dr Elaine Kinsella is Lecturer in Psychology, Department of Psychology, University of Limerick, Ireland. 

 

Rachel Sumner and Elaine Kinsell spoke mainly about their research into the differences in response of health workers to their respective Government’s handling of the pandemic, and about what their research had told them about the nature of that response and burnout. 

 
Elaine Kinsella and Rachel Sumner told the Inquiry that:
 

  • Their research project started in March 2020 to track the well being of frontline workers across all sectors using survey and interview data: from health care to care homes, social workers, education, civil defence, emergency services, supermarkets and supply chain logistics etc

  • The respective Governments in the UK and the Republic of Ireland  had been very different: the ROI having a suppression and elimination approach, moving quickly to shut hings down. In the UK, there were many delays to eg the accommodation of the Cheltenham Festival, the Champions League football game.

  • The main driver behind the study was to try to understand whether or not these key sort of strategy type differences would play out in terms of the way the frontline workers were feeling.

  • Frontline workers did not fare well, particularly in the UK, compared to the Republic of Ireland,, across key indicators of wellbeing, resilience and burnout, particularly in the initial period March - May 2020. 

  • There were clear, statistically significant differences between the Republic of Ireland and the UK, in terms of worker wellbeing, also in terms of resilience and burnout. But the gap has actually decreased over time, because, unfortunately, frontline workers in the ROI have dropped in terms of their well being, due to policy changes, with the UK remaining at a low level 

  • Participants were asked how they felt about their Government's response, whether they considered it to be timely, effective, or appropriate. And for each of those metrics, those in the UK rated lower, in terms of their perception of the Government's action.

  • This seems to be an important driver of each of those outcomes. Wellbeing was lower, resilience was lower in the UK, and burnout was higher, driven very much by the perceived timeliness of the Government's actions. 

  • In surveys and interviews workers described the chaos of Government advice, that the Government's response has been indefensible.

  • People have been critical of: unclear and ambiguous messaging; schools and universities being open at certain stages; the failure to lockdown that happened before Christmas 2020 which effectively undid all their good work; rule breaking was not consistently dealt with - especially the very notable rule breaking that took place. 

  • One participant said in the first wave the population was standing together, and that the generosity given to those who needed it was ‘incredible’. The NHS and frontline workers were thought of by all, but after the Government showed in the UK  how not to stick to the rules, the public started to have enough of isolation. And that's where it all changed. This has been ‘devastating’ for frontline workers.

  • There have been changes in the Republic’s approaches which have made for less differences in the later period, although the UK continued to go down. 

  • Three quotes from October 2020
    ‘I feel valued in my team and organisation, but I don't feel valued by the public any longer, or at all by our Government in any way.’

‘It's been a roller coaster, my immediate team are absolutely amazing. But I lack confidence in my Trust, and feel hugely let down by the Government - cannon fodder absolutely nails it.’
‘I feel like I don't matter. every other person was furloughed for protection and made to stay at home, we got to work for peanuts with our flimsy PPE, crossing our fingers, we can beat it, the Government sicken me with their lack of empathy. 30% pay rise for them and a clap for us what a mug I was for being a nurse is the way I feel.’

 

Resilience and burnout
Elaine Kinsella told the Inquiry that:

  • Many frontline workers have a great sense of pride in their work, are trying to see the positives, although they were feeling really overwhelmed, not having had PPE, testing or support. 

  • However many health workers are thinking of leaving their posts, particularly linked to the beginning of the pandemic where they were labelled as heroes with the ‘clap for carers’, but where this was not backed up with compensation and support. This is really ‘driving negative emotions and negative effect’.

  • The research shows that wellbeing is dropping, and that there are indicators of burnout and even post traumatic stress syndrome.

  • People who do well in the short term are those that have resilient coping styles where people seek for example creative ways of dealing with difficult situations, and where they can develop a sense of control over a particular area of stress 

  • Even people who are being resilient however, can become burnt out. People need to be helped to cope with these very strong emotions. 

 

Rachel Sumner told the panel that:

  • The answer they get consistently in their research is that timely decisive action is needed by frontline workers from the Government.

  • People are often separated from their families, their social support may be fragmented and may be feeling less support from the country. 

  • The instances of rule breaking by individuals and failure of the Government to deal with them, or the behaviour of groups for example going to the beach or holding large parties, that aren’t consistently dealt with, undermine things,and  lead to frontline workers’ feelings of ‘why should I bother, people may call me a hero but if everyone is breaking the rules, what is the point?’

  • This is the point at which the research has begun to show manifestations of burnout, and the beginnings of PTSD in some frontline workers.

  • The gestures of appreciation for frontline workersh were really appreciated but  unfortunately, over time, have become undermined by the messages from the Government singling out communities in the country or blaming people for some poor outcome that has happened. 

 

In what ways can frontline workers make their voices heard?

  • Many of the research participants said that they are trying to get from one end of the day to the other and keep things going at home.  

  • It may be too early for people  to band together to bring this forward themselves. 

 

What will be the result of ignoring the lessons of ignoring the evidence of frontline workers’ poor mental state?
Rachel Sumner told the panel that:

  • They had been able to observe patterns over time. PTSD was now starting to emerge and burnout patterns are changing.
    Burnout has three main characteristics behind it:

    • Exhaustion, where there is both physical and mental exhaustion,

    • Feelings of inadequacy, which are starting to creep in over time. There were elevations of that at six months and further elevations at 12 months.

    • Cynicism - one of those aspects that plays into ‘why should I bother?’ ‘what can I do’, a feeling of futility. That is also increasing.

  • Exhaustion was always high. But the  two later aspects of increasing on a trajectory. 

  • Recognisable levels of PTSD are starting to emerage which is worrying  in that the situation is still ongoing. We are not even at the post point yet. So for this to be emerging at this stage is worrying. 

  • The research shows that if people feel that their life has purpose and meaning, that can buffer against a llot of negative impacts. The research showed at the beginning, that this sense  of having meaning in life seemed to be protective to each of those key outcomes, burnout, resilience, well being.

  • However the research also shows that after 12 months, participants are starting to feel hopeless and are losing the drive to keep working. ‘And so much of this vital work is about that personal drive, because it's hard work, all of it is hard work. It's hard work, and it's dangerous. And for people to leave their door every day to go into that hard and dangerous work, they need to know that it's worth it. And that it means something. And that's the really worrying trend we're seeing.’


Witness 4: Rachel Ambrose
Witness statement

Rachel Ambrose is a registered mental health nurse with 15 years experience. Her  specialism is working in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services in an inpatient setting. 

 

Rachel Ambrose told the panel that initially, she was not working on the frontline during the pandemic, due to being on maternity leave, but had seen her colleagues going through a really difficult time. She had wanted to  help in terms of nursing activism. And so joined Nurses United and became one of their leaders, and also helped to set up the Nurses of Colour Network. She described deteriorating funding and provision for children and young people with mental health difficulties. 

Rachel Ambrose told the panel that:

  • She works with young people who are experiencing significant crisis, who can no longer safely be cared for in the community at home with their family. Their care has to be escalated, and they have to enter into inpatient services. 

  • Even before the pandemic they had been ‘very low on beds’. Staffing has been reduced over the years. 

  • Once the pandemic hit, the referrals became ‘much steeper’. There had been a lot of discussion around planning for a surge in mental health referrals during and and post lockdown, however this does not seem to have continued, although the surges have. 

  • Very often, there are not any available beds for children at significant risk in the community, who need to have a hospital bed. Staff are therefore having  to make decisions, where maybe young people are being released back into the community earlier than necessary, because staff are ‘having to weigh up the risks of those currently in the community waiting for a bed.’

  • There has been a definite and significant increase in numbers of young people with eating disorders, of self harm, and suicide attempts. Some of these  are exacerbated because of isolation and not being able to have access to their networks.  

  • Children have gone months without going into school, having access to their teachers and support workers who would have previously been able to refer them to mental health services, and would have been able to access support much sooner than at present. 

  • Many referrals have not been known to services, have not had access to early intervention because they have been so isolated. Eating disorders, depression and self harm thrive on isolation. A lot of the flags that are normally seen have been hidden. 

  • Many young people are revising, are stressed about missing schools, and the tests they have to do, all of which have exacerbated mentals health issues. 

  • It has been difficult for parents as well. They have been working, working from home, often struggling financially. 

 

What is needed

Rachel Ambrose told the panel that

  • A significant boost of cash into services. 

  • She had seen quite a bit about education plans but nothing about support that some young people had missed during lockdown for example in terms of their speech and language input. Many children and young people have special education plans in place and for some they have not had access to additional professionals for months. This missed time needs to be picked up and ways found to carry this out. 

  • Early intervention and other work is required to prevent young people from going into crisis and ending up in inpatient services. 

 

Long term consequences of failure to provide adequate support

Rachel Ambrose told the panel that the consequences are wide ranging:

  • Many young people who come into inpatient services have reached a crisis point. ‘This has a massive impact on their relationship with their family, who are often having to deal with really challenging behaviours at home for a significant amount of time before they come into hospital.’  That impacts on their relationship with their family, also on their education. There is a school within the in patient unit, but cannot offer the same opportunities that young people have in their home schools. 

  • ‘What a young person experiences today, tomorrow when they become parents, that's going to be having an impact on how they parent their children as well. ‘

 

Nurses United
Rachel Ambrose told the panel that:

  • Nurses United had been set up to support nurses in being able to become active in issues that they're really passionate about. 

  • Much recent work has been around the pay campaign in ensuring that nurses receive an adequate pay rise.

  • We need the Government to really listen to us and to actually take action. 

  • Public support has been overwhelming - three quarters of the public support a permanent pay rise for nursing staff, and overwhelmingly  support a 10% pay rise for nursing staff. 

  • Alongside the pay rise there is the need to think about safe staffing to ensure that nurses can be retained, also support for student nurses.
    There is also the issues of housing - it is too expensive for nurses to live in the South East. 

Witness 4: Professor Jonathan Portes

Witness statement
 

Jonathan Portes was a civil servant and Government economist for about 25 years. He was Chief Economist and Director for Welfare to Work and Child Poverty at the Department for Work and Pensions from 2002  to 2008. He was Chief Economist at the Cabinet Office between 2008 and 2011 is  now Professor of Economics and Public Policy at King's College London.

The myth that we must sacrifice lives in order to save the economy
Jonathan Portes told the Inquiry that:

  • He represents ‘a broad consensus of economists across the ideological spectrum’. There has been quite a lot of unity among economists that the right thing to do from a health point of view was also the right thing to do from an economic point of view ie to take whatever measures were necessary to address the health crisis, even at the cost of economic output in the short term, because the alternative of not dealing effectively with the health crisis would actually lead to greater and longer term economic losses. 

  • In other words, most economists thought it much better for the Government to do whatever it takes to suppress the virus, even if that meant a very sharp fall of GDP in the short term,  rather than allowing things to drag on. probably seeing a sharp fall in economic output anyway, as people took actions themselves to protect themselves, but also a slower and less resilient recovery.

 

Was the vast amount of public expenditure during the pandemic used appropriately to achieve the endpoint of controlling the virus?

Jonathan Portes told the Inquiry that:

  • He distinguishes between expenditure used to control the virus and that used to mitigate the economic and social impacts of what Government needed to do to control the virus. ‘The procurement on PPE was clearly hugely wasteful and occasionally corrupt, that the expenditure on Test and Trace was badly spent and mismanaged, and therefore led to adverse outcomes.’
    In contrast the vaccine programme, by contrast, has been a great success. Lots of money had been thrown at many different vaccines; that was the right strategy and it paid off. 

  • Far more money has been spent on things like the business support scheme. On the whole, that has been money fairly well spent. The Government's response in terms of supporting people's jobs, supporting businesses, and increasing benefit payments, the extra payments to Universal Credit, have on the whole, been appropriate from an economic perspective, and appropriate from a social perspective. From an economic perspective, while costly in the short term, they are likely to reduce the negative long term impacts on the UK economy that will result if unemployment, particularly long term unemployment,  or if good businesses had been allowed to go under. 

  • There is some evidence that Test and Trace may have been partially successful but the really big and unforced policy error here was the failure to incentivise people, particularly lower income workers who actually do what they need to.

 

The Government has erred by spending too little
Jonathan Portes told the Inquiry that

  • The obvious policy error has been the failure to raise sick pay or to put in place a an effective system of sick pay that incentivises people who are sick, might be sick, or have symptoms, or have been contacted by officially or unofficially, to incentivise them  to take time off work to self-isolate. 

  • That real false economy, which has undoubtedly inhibited the effectiveness of Test and Trace, and therefore probably led to more people getting sick than needed to be, prolonging the pandemic unnecessarily. 

  • The individual programmes, the furlough scheme, the self employment income support scheme, the business support scheme, have not been perfect but have been broadly appropriate.

  • Sick pay
    ‘In terms of f replacement rates compared to average earnings, we are not only lower than anywhere, I believe anywhere else in the OECD, but lower by quite a long way, in almost all of our obvious major comparators.’ 

 

Why does the obsession with deficit reduction matter?

John Puntis told the Inquiry that

  • In 2009-11, there had been a ‘frankly ludicrous’ idea that the UK was going to go bust or not be able to afford to pay its debts, that the markets would panic at the level of our debts and that interest rates would therefore go up.

  • In fact interest rates on UK Government debt had fallen as in most other countries fell and continued to do so. 

  • What replaced the first idea was the notion that the deficit had to be reduced so that we will be prepared for the next crisis. But this is an excessively narrow view of what being prepared for a crisis looks like.

  • While it is helpfull to have broadly sustainable public finances going into a crisis. It is even more helpful to have a health system that has some margin of spare capacity, a social care system that doesn’t push back more problems onto the health service, councils that have a public health function in place, and a benefit system that provides reasonable levels of support to people who lose their jobs, and to low income working families. ‘And we eroded all that at the expense of the single minded focus on trying to reduce the deficit.’ Rather than fixing the roof while the sun was shining, as George Osborne put it, well, we may have fixed the roof, but at the expense of knocking down some of the walls at the same time. And that left us more not less vulnerable to the (pandemic) crisis.’

  • Before the pandemic, in the 10 years up to 2010, there were increases in healthy life expectancy across the income spectrum, (still with unacceptably large gaps between rich and poor), Whereas in the 2000 and 10s, there was a general slowing down of the progress  for everybody, but particularly marked for lower income groups, including a fall in life expectancy for some lower income groups. 

  • That was reflected in the structural inequalities which underlie what has happened during the pandemic, which is this very, very high differential mortality gradient where the most disadvantaged groups have clearly been most vulnerable both to contracting Covid and to getting seriously ill and dying from it. 

 

The effect if the Government were to respond to this crisis with more austerity?
Jonathan Portes told the Panel that:

  • The Institute for Fiscal Studies had published that day figures showing that the damage done to children's education during the pandemic could very roughly over the next 40 years, cost the country about £350 billion. This is a rough estimate but it gives an idea of the order of magnitude of the damage done if children's education is knocked out for the best part of a year

  • The Education Policy Institute proposed a catch up programme which would cost about £15 billion. Jonathan Portes’ estimate of how much education output was lost during the pandemic was about £30 billion. Sir Kevan Collins, who had proposed that the Government spend about £15 million on catch-up, had been refused support for his plan,  with the Government offering to provide one and a half billion. 

  • ‘I think that it is almost impossible to see what the economic justification for that decision is, for only funding such a small proportion of what any reasonable estimate of what is required.’

  • This is both a social and economic case; there is a pure cost benefit case for funding education catch-up, but it's also obviously a social case in that the children and young people who have been most damaged by the pandemic are obviously those who are most disadvantaged, because they have been least able to keep up with their studies through remote working or home learning.

  • ‘But I really find that the Government's decision on this almost incomprehensible from almost any perspective really.’

 

The lessons for a third wave 

Jonathan Portes told the Panel that:

  • The Government should not be worried about spending money in the short term.
    The country has incurred a very large amount of debt, as a result of this crisis but  the actions Government has taken to support the economy have had no impact, on market interest rates. The Government still pays a historically very low level of interest payments on Government debt. So the actual burden on the budget of the Government debt is rather low, despite the fact that debt is considerably higher than it was 10 or 20 years ago.

  • Although of course debt is a problem it is not the main one. The Government needs to do is what is necessary to definitively suppress the pandemic, and spend whatever it takes to do that. And after that, to reopen in a safe and controlled way and to get back to normal as quickly as possible. 

  • The estimates of the long term damage done by the pandemic have tended to fall. The recovery even in the partial reopening we've seen has exceeded expectations.

Witness 6: Zahra Ali

Witness statement

Zahra Ali confirmed that she is 17 years old, and studying for her A Levels, hoping to study medicine.

Zahra spoke about how own education, her health had been affected by Covid-19 and the sad loss of both her grandparents within short space of time.

 

Lockdown and education

Zahra Ali told the Inquiry that:

  • Students were anxious because of Government silence; they were worried about their futures. 2020 had been her GCSE year and this year, 2021, the start of  her A Levels. ‘And what was hard was, for a few months, we were left just in silence. We didn't know what was happening’.

  • ‘For five years, you’re studying and really trying hard, to do the best that you can do.’ She had said to herself that she wanted to ‘do something important. ‘And what was really saddening was that, after all that work, I had to let go, and it's very hard to let go after, you put so much work in and you just don't want to leave it to people determining your fate.’ If you sat an exam, you could say that you had worked hard and these are my grades. But ‘there was always like, a sense of, what if they get it wrong? What if this is not right for me? There was lots of what ifs and that is something that you don't need at that moment.’

  • The final day at school had been really upsetting in that she had had to say goodbye to friends made over many years, and there had been no certainty about when they would meet up again face to face. 

 

Zahra’s poem ‘Dear Grief’
Zahra’s health had been badly affected by the pandemic.  She lost both her grandparents to Covid-19. 

Zahra told the Inquiry that she had written the poem to ‘discover a lot about my whole grief process and everything that’s going on.’

 

Please see Zahra's witness statement for her poem or see here 'Dear Grief'