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Covid Inquiry Week 2: Cameron government’s emergency planning in the spotlight

Inside a courtroom
By David Scane
20 June 2023
Public Affairs

With attention this week focused on Parliament’s report into Boris Johnson’s behaviour during lockdown, it was easy to miss the launch of a much more significant inquiry.

First announced in May 2021, the public inquiry into the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has started its first public evidence hearings.

The inquiry has been set up to identify lessons from both the government and devolved administrations’ response to the pandemic. Chaired by Baroness Hallet, who previously led the inquests into the 7/7 bombings, the inquiry has been split into four modules:

  • Resilience and preparedness
  • Core UK decision-making and political governance
  • The impact of Covid on healthcare
  • Vaccines, therapeutics and anti-viral treatment


The headline acts on Monday and Tuesday were former Prime Minister David Cameron, former Chancellor George Osborne and Sir Oliver Letwin, who had responsibility for emergency planning during the coalition government.

On Monday, David Cameron appeared before the inquiry facing questions about his record. Cameron accepted that his government had placed too much focus on preparing to deal with a flu pandemic and made a mistake by not looking at a wider range of different pandemics, particularly those with asymptomatic transmission. When asked whether health budgets under his time in office were ‘inadequate’ Cameron pushed back saying that his policies were necessary to get the British economy in a position to be able to deal with future crises.

Speaking to the inquiry on Tuesday, Sir Oliver Letwin revealed that while emergency planning formed part of his portfolio it was “only a very small part of his job”. He believed that not having a dedicated minister for resilience and emergency planning was an “error” leading to several issues falling between the cracks. These included his belief that the government’s pandemic preparedness was being covered by someone else. Letwin added that he believed that if the government had better planned for a pandemic then the cost of interventions like PPE and testing would have been miniscule.

Letwin was followed by Former Chancellor George Osborne, who faced similar questions to David Cameron about the impact of austerity policies. Unsurprisingly, George Osborne stood by his austerity policy, telling the inquiry that there was no alternative after the financial crash. He defended his actions, insisting that while other areas had been cut, spending on the NHS had been ring-fenced. Despite having stepped down as an MP in 2017, Osborne’s political instincts kicked in when defending his record asserting that his austerity policies had strengthened rather than weakened the UK’s ability to handle the pandemic.

The final witness to give evidence on Tuesday was Professor Dame Sally Davies, England’s former Chief Medical Officer. Professor Davies echoed David Cameron in highlighting the emphasis placed on preparing for a flu pandemic, something which she argued the whole western world had been focused on. She defended this approach by highlighting that there had been four flu pandemics in the past century and there would be more in the future. Defending her record further, Professor Davies said she had argued for a review into Sars, but had been told that the was no chance of an outbreak in the UK.

The inquiry will be sitting for a further two days this week, with evidence being heard from, amongst others, Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt on Wednesday and Sir Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance on Thursday.