DHSC accepts restrictions caused ‘profound pain’, Covid Inquiry hears

Fiona Scolding KC, representing the Department of Health, said the Government was often faced with a choice between ‘hugely unpalatable options’.

The Department of Health has accepted pandemic restrictions caused “profound loneliness, pain and anguish” as it told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry it would not argue it got “everything right” in its response.

Fiona Scolding KC, a lawyer representing the department, said the Government was often faced with a choice between “hugely unpalatable options” and decisions were “finely balanced”.

She asked the inquiry to bear in mind the context in which the department was making policy decisions, which she accepted “with the benefit of hindsight” may be different.

Ms Scolding said at Wednesday’s hearing: “The department recognises the strength of feeling among some that certain of the decisions made by us were wrong. For example, some people feel lockdown should have been introduced earlier and for longer; others hold an opposite and contrary view.

“What the department was often faced with was a choice between a series of hugely unpalatable options, all of which were certain to have negative impacts on the citizens of the United Kingdom in one way or another.

“Decisions were often extremely finely balanced. Contrary decisions could rationally have been made, resulting in a very different set of outcomes.

“The department will not seek, during the course of this inquiry, to say that it did everything right, or that it would necessarily have made the same decisions today in 2023 with the benefit of hindsight.”

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Baroness Heather Hallett is chairing the UK public inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

Ms Scolding acknowledged that rules imposed by the department to curb the spread of the virus had taken a “profound” toll on families and friends who were isolated.

“The department recognises that the guidance it put in place often meant that family and friends were unable to see their loved ones for long periods of time, causing profound loneliness, pain and anguish, the effects of which still endure for many today,” she said.

It comes after lead lawyer to the inquiry Hugo Keith KC told its opening on Tuesday that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) may not have been “very well prepared” for the pandemic.

A Government preoccupation with planning for departure from the EU may have “crowded out” the work needed to respond to the health emergency, he suggested.

Links were again drawn between Brexit and the pandemic on Wednesday, with a lawyer for the Welsh Government suggesting the UK’s pandemic influenza review was paused in 2018 because of withdrawal preparations.

Andrew Kinnier KC said: “The extent to which Brexit-related preparation and planning consumed the attention of all four Governments in the UK from 2017 cannot be underestimated.

“It is clear that Brexit preparations were the reason why the work of the UK’s pandemic influenza review board was substantially paused in 2018.”

The inquiry will be split into six areas, with the first looking at whether the UK was adequately prepared for the pandemic.

Interim reports are scheduled to be published before public hearings conclude by summer 2026.

A separate Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry chaired by Lord Brailsford is looking at the pandemic response in devolved areas in Scotland.

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