Michael Gove has apologised for mistakes made by the government during the Covid pandemic, saying the UK was too slow to lock down in early 2020 and then again that autumn.
Gove told to the Covid inquiry that the initial delay was not because of dithering by Boris Johnson, saying that the then-prime minister needed time to “reflect on the momentous nature of the decision and consider arguments against it”.
However, he did agree that by mid-March 2020, when 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 this was by then a matter of life and death, Gove replied: “Absolutely. And that is why I believe I should have been [clearer].”
Gove, who was the lead minister in the Cabinet Office for much of the pandemic, said the initial approach to testing for the virus was chaotic, not enough focus was paid to the impact of lockdown on children, and there was a need for “reflection” on how PPE was procured.
While evidence showed Gove was pushing for earlier action, he declined to blame Johnson for being cautious about the first lockdown, saying this was difficult for the PM given his naturally libertarian philosophy.
Quizzed by Keith about earlier evidence on Johnson’s apparent inability to make a decision or to stick with one, Gove denied that 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 wider idea of endemic dysfunction in Johnson’s government or in the Cabinet Office, arguing that the “strong personalities” present also achieved some successes.
Asked about what Keith called “chaos” in the Cabinet Office in early 2020, Gove said: “If I may … apologise to the victims who endured such pain, the families who endured so much loss as a result of the mistakes that were made by government in response to the pandemic.
“As a minister responsible for the Cabinet Office, and was also close to many of the decisions that were made, I must take my share of responsibility for that. Politicians are human beings. We’re fallible. We make mistakes and we make errors. I am sure that the inquiry will have an opportunity to look in detail at many of the errors I and others made.”
Pressed on what specifically went wrong, Gove insisted any errors had to be seen in context. “Of course mistakes were made by the UK government, and some were unique and specific to the UK government. But governments everywhere made errors,” he said.
Pressed on this later in the hearing, Gove said the UK was too slow to lock down initially and that ministers should have taken stronger measures sooner in autumn 2020 as case rates rose again.
The strategy on testing for Covid was “not as rigorously thought through as it might have been”, Gove added, and there was insufficient focus on children, especially vulnerable ones. Finally, he said, the approach to PPE procurement “deserves at the very least reflection”.
The inquiry also saw WhatsApp messages in early March 2020 between Gove and Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s then chief aide in which Gove expressed anger at the slowness of action.
In one message to Cummings on 4 March, Gove write: “We are fucking up as a government and missing golden opportunities … the whole situation is even worse than you think and action needs to be taken or we’ll regret it for a long time.”
While Gove said this was about wider issues, not just Covid, by a week later he was agreeing with Cummings that the Cabinet Office was “a fucking joke” because they did not have a promised plan for the pandemic.
“People should be shot,” Cummings said. “Who did you envisage first in line?” Gove asked in reply.
Gove told the hearing that the Cabinet Office, the coordinating department in government, of which he took charge in February 2020, became dysfunctional over time in a “piecemeal and cumulative way” by having more and more responsibilities added.