Today
Fri 28 January 2022

There are grounds to pursue a legal case against the Prime Minister and his Cabinet over their role in the COVID pandemic, a leading barrister says

“It’s not just Boris Johnson – he’s not the only one in this ballgame,” says Michael Mansfield QC, chair of the People’s COVID Inquiry, who has told Byline Times that there are grounds for prosecuting the Prime Minister, members of his Cabinet, and former ministers, for their role in Britain’s COVID calamity.

The inquiry, organised by campaigning group Keep Our NHS Public, spent four months collating evidence from more than 50 witnesses – spanning from public health experts to members of the public – about the Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Government’s handling of the pandemic was grossly negligent and has unquestionably led to significant loss of life that could and should have been avoided,” the report concludes, which has been released today. “Those in charge during the pandemic showed a wilful disregard for public safety and a callousness toward the numbers of people who have died and their bereaved relatives.”

These beliefs have been held by members of the scientific community, the public and activists for some time. As the UK’s former chief scientist Sir David King told Byline Times back in May: the Government could have saved more than 100,000 lives during the pandemic, if it had taken a more cautious approach, and if local public health teams had been empowered rather than the private sector.

However, there has so far been an absence of ideas about how exactly those responsible can be brought to justice. With Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party still clinging onto its lead in the polls – and with only a handful of ministerial resignations during the pandemic – it appears as though there is little accountability for this public health disaster.

Through thePeople’s COVID Inquiry, Mansfield –a barrister and head of Nexus Chambers – has been giving some thought to this question, and believes there is a case for Cabinet ministers – both present and former – to be held legally responsible for their misconduct in public office.

Speaking to the Byline Times Podcast, Mansfield highlighted that a common law does exist, allowing prosecutions based on “offences when a public officer wilfully neglects to perform his or her duty to such a degree as to amount to an abuse of the public’s trust in the office-holder, without reasonable excuse or justification.”

“Is it worthy of condemnation? Has it damaged the public interest? The answer is – yes,” Mansfield says, about the Government’s response to the pandemic.“Whatever can be said about the vaccine, it doesn’t absolve” Johnson and his Cabinet for their other misconduct, he adds.

Such a high-profile case would need to be considered by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Mansfield says, and would need to be pursued by the Metropolitan Police – on the basis of the evidence presented by thePeople’s COVID Inquiry.

At the very least, Mansfield says, the Director of Public Prosecutions would be wise to reflect on how to approach accusations of misconduct against the Prime Minister and his Cabinet.“A number of people are already thinking about this, in general terms,” Mansfield says – in relation to potential legal cases against the Government.

However, culpability does not just lie at the door of Downing Street. The Government conducted two pandemic planning exercises in 2016, under the direction of former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt. One of these exercises, named Cygnus, exposed the inadequacy of the Government’s planning – yet no action was taken to strengthen public health services or to stockpile key supplies.

Therefore, at the outset of the pandemic – as the National Audit Office has highlighted – the Government’s stockpile contained enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to cope for just two weeks, including aprons to last for just six days. Some of the equipment had also passed its expiry date or did not meet safety standards, including six million respirator masks that had to be tested and re-labelled.

The Government’s approach to the risk of a pandemic – both theoretical and in reality – constituted a “serious failure of planning and anticipation, and I think it does amount to serious misconduct,” Mansfield told the Byline Times Podcast.

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Dogma and Megalomania

Ultimately, these failings are derived from ideology and leadership, he says.It “took them ages” to set up a test and trace system, Mansfield notes, after which they “paid billions to the private sector and it didn’t work”. Indeed, the Government is still employing 1,200 private sector consultants on its testing and contact tracing operation, at a cost of more than £1 million a day.

“The public health service is the best way to handle a pandemic. You don’t handle it by pumping taxpayers’ money into the private sector without any competition. The question has to be: the companies that received the funds from Government – were these companies the experts in healthcare? I’m going to suggest that actually none of them knew anything about healthcare,” Sir David King previously told Byline Times.

This situation was exacerbated by the Prime Minister’s own personal behaviour, Mansfield says. Johnson’s leadership style has been plagued by inconsistency. His “policy changes day-to-day,” Mansfield says, “it very much depends on the mood of the moment”.

Commonly, Johnson’s mood has been driven by more radical elements in his party and the media, causing the Government to minimise the threat of COVID-19 – and in some cases to almost deny its existence.

“It’s a combination of political dogma – because it wants to ensure the private sector profits – alongside a kind of megalomania from the person in charge,” Mansfield observes.

A legal case against Johnson and his Cabinet would have to surmount numerous obstacles – not least a system of informal rules and backdoor lobbying that insulates people in high office from the consequences of their own actions. However, as Mansfield highlights, examples are being established abroad – not least in Brazil, where senators have recommended charging President Jair Bolsonaro over his handling of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, with another variant of the disease threatening to cause yet more cases and deaths, the UK Government has still failed to announce the timescale for its official inquiry into the pandemic – as the families of the victims still wait for justice to be served.

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