Michael Gove has apologized for the mistakes the government made during the Covid pandemic, saying the UK was too slow to lock down in early 2020 and later in the autumn.
Gove told the Covid inquiry that the initial delay was not due to Boris Johnson being upset, saying the prime minister needed time to “reflect on the important nature of the decision and consider the arguments against it”.
However, he admitted that in mid-March 2020, if he was personally convinced about the need for a lockdown, he should have been more forthright. Asked by Hugo Keith KC, the inquiry counsel, whether it was once a matter of life and death, Gove replied: “Absolutely. And so I believe I would have [clearer].”
Gove, who was the lead minister in the Cabinet Office for most of the pandemic, said that the initial testing method for the virus was messy, not enough attention was paid to the impact of locking down children, and there was a need for “Reflection.” on how to purchase PPE.
While evidence showed Gove had pushed for earlier action, he refused to blame Johnson for being cautious about the earlier lockdown, saying it was difficult for the PM because of his natural libertarian philosophy.
Asked by Keith about early evidence of Johnson’s apparent inability to make a decision or stick to one, Gove denied the prime minister was “oscillating” during the crucial period in March 2020.
“No. On this occasion I think it was a reluctance to make a decision rather than an inability to stick to one,” he said.
He rejected the broader notion of endemic dysfunction in Johnson’s government or the Cabinet Office, arguing that the “strong personalities” present also achieved some successes.
Asked about what Keith called a “mess” in the Cabinet Office in early 2020, Gove said: “If I could … apologize to the victims who have suffered such pain, the families who suffered heavy losses due to the mistakes made by the government in response to the pandemic.
“As a minister responsible for the Cabinet Office, and also close to many decisions made, I have to take my share of responsibility for that. Politicians are human. We make mistakes. We make mistakes and we make mistakes. Sure. I that the inquiry has the opportunity to see in detail the many mistakes that I and others have made.
Pressed on what specifically went wrong, Gove insisted that any mistakes must be seen in context. “Of course mistakes are made by the UK government, and some are unique and specific to the UK government. But governments everywhere make mistakes,” he said.
Pressed later at the hearing, Gove said the UK was too slow to lock down at first and that ministers should take stronger measures earlier in autumn 2020 as case rates rise. too.
The testing strategy for Covid “is not as rigorously thought out as it could be,” Gove added, and there is not enough focus on children, especially the vulnerable. Ultimately, he said, the PPE procurement process “deserves at least some thought”.
The inquiry also saw WhatsApp messages in early March 2020 between Gove and Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s top aide in which Gove expressed anger at the slowness of action.
In a message to Cummings on 4 March, Gove wrote: “We are fucking as a government and missing golden opportunities … .”
While Gove said it was about wider issues, not just Covid, a week ago he agreed with Cummings that the Cabinet Office was “a fucking joke” because they had not promised a plan for the pandemic.
“People should be shot,” Cummings said. “Who do you think is first in line?” Gove asked in response.
Gove told the hearing that the Cabinet Office, the government coordination department, which he took charge of in February 2020, had become dysfunctional over time in a “piecemeal and cumulative way” by adding more and more responsibilities.