The government has conducted a secret “lessons learned” review on the Covid pandemic but is refusing to publish it, Downing Street has admitted.
Whitehall civil servants in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) have conducted internal assessments of what went wrong to improve best practice, HuffPost UK has been told.
Boris Johnson announced a statutory inquiry into the pandemic on Wednesday, but the prime minister’s official spokesman later confirmed that at least one review has already been completed.
Asked about the existence of such an internal review, the spokesman said: “What you are referring to is an informal, not public-facing work.
“As you’d expect it’s standard practice for departments to look into ways that they can continually improve.
“That’s been done previously, it’s been done throughout this pandemic. The government has learned from, as we have gone along, dealing with this novel Coronavirus..on treatments, on diagnostics.”
It is understood that the spokesman was referring to a DHSC review of internal working and other “nuts and bolts” issues, rather than a full-scale probe into all aspects of the pandemic.
The review, which in line with Whitehall practice was not intended for publication, was not an over-arching cross-Whitehall procedure.
However, the DHSC document is now sure to be subjected to a Freedom of Information request to make it public, with government refusals likely to go to appeal.
If the Information Commissioner rules in favour of disclosure, the “lessons learned” – including any details of policy mistakes made by ministers or officials – could exposed before the statutory inquiry begins.
The PM and his chief medical adviser have said that among the early lessons were in realising the asymptomatic nature of the virus, the careful discharge of patients into care homes and the need for more and better testing.
Health secretary Matt Hancock has repeatedly said that the department has already “learned lessons” as it has gone along.
He told a conference last year that some lessons included shedding unnecessary bureaucracy and intensifying the NHS’ use of technology.
Earlier, the PM told the Commons that a full statutory inquiry into the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic would begin in spring 2022 and put the “state’s actions under the microscope”.
The total UK death toll from Covid now stands at over 150,000. The timeframe suggests it would not report back before the next general election, which will be held in 2024 or earlier.
Johnson told MPs: “I can confirm today that the government will establish an independent public inquiry on a statutory basis, with full powers under the Inquiries Act 2005 – including the ability to compel the production of all relevant materials and take oral evidence in public under oath.”
Asked when the chairman of the inquiry would be appointed, and its remit agreed, No.10 said “in due course”.
Downing Street declined to say whether the public inquiry will report back before the next general election - which could be as early as 2023.
The spokesman said: “The timescale is down to the chairman, that is something that we will want to agree with the chairperson when they are appointed.
“Some inquiries have had timescales and, as is sadly the case, sometimes inquiries don’t stick to those timescales, but we will make clear when we set out terms of reference whether there’s a timescale, and obviously we will want to discuss timing with the chairperson as and when we pick them.”
Pressed if Johnson thinks it is important for the inquiry to report back before the next general election, the spokesman said: “I think that’s another way of getting me to put a timescale on it and that’s something that we would want to set out with the terms of references after discussion with the chair.”
Clive Lewis MP, vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on coronavirus said: “The government must come clean and publish this review immediately to avoid accusations of a cover up.
“Every individual and community in the country has been touched by this pandemic, so the British public has a right to know what mistakes have been made and the lessons learned so far.
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and nowhere is that more true than the government’s handling of this pandemic.”
Shadow Cabinet Office minister Jack Dromey said: “This report must be published without delay. The government cannot cover up its findings.
“The families of those who have lost their lives in this pandemic deserve answers, and we must learn the lessons, something which is particularly urgent if the prime minister is himself predicting a further wave of infections later this year.”