March 2020. A phalanx of army trucks rumbles through the streets of Bergamo, Northern Italy. Moving through the chilly mountain air, they’re carrying the bodies of local people who have died in the nascent Covid-19 outbreak. In short order the local newspaper, L’Eco di Bergamo, will be running 10 pages of obituaries per day – more than 6,000 deaths will be recorded in the city in March alone, with local priest Marco Bergamelli saying he was called to bless a coffin every 10 minutes.

While this was unfolding the British government, if testimony at this week’s Covid inquiry – a separate Scottish inquiry is also taking place - is to be believed, was laughing.

Deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara spoke of the “jovial tones” in early cabinet meetings about the virus, of the “unbelievably bullish” attitude of senior members of government.

Miss MacNamara told the inquiry: “I have great faith and confidence in that most of the time people will do the right thing, and it was that disconnect that I felt so strongly.

Read More: Edinburgh-Bergamo by train. 3.5x the air price, 10th the CO2

“If we could just tell people what the right, kind and proper thing to do was then people would do that – sitting there and saying it was great and laughing at the Italians just felt completely… well, it felt how it sounds.”

It wasn’t the only discussion of sound, it must be said, with Miss MacNamara also expressing her “profound regret” for having provided a karaoke machine for an illegal lockdown-breaking party inside 10 Downing Street.

A hole in my bucket

The module of the inquiry focusing on political leadership during the crisis began on October 3, and if Boris Johnson and co were “laughing at the Italians” in March 2020 onlookers aren’t laughing now.

To recap, the initial strategy adopted by Number 10 was one of “herd immunity”, where the virus would be allowed to move through the population but at a slow enough rate to avoid overwhelming the NHS. This strategy was explained on YouTube by a Welsh podiatrist and approvingly shared by government apartchiks and Westminster correspondents alike – the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg called it a “punter-friendly explanation”.

There was, to quote Blackadder, a tiny flaw in the plan: it was bollocks. With the NHS already operating at close to capacity, and the experience of those funny Italians indicating that around 30% of those who ended up in hospital would require intensive care treatment, modelling indicated 250,000 could be killed by Westminster’s approach and Johnson and co, as we know, eventually switched course.

Not that they were particularly happy about it. Dominic Cummings, once Mr Johnson’s most trusted lieutenant, gave evidence indicating that the Prime Minister was more interested in writing a book about Shakespeare when the first cases began to appear in Europe, and didn’t think Covid was “a big deal”.

The Prime Minister also, it was claimed, asked scientific advisors about the possibility of using a “special hairdryer”, directed up the nose, to kill the virus based on a YouTube video he had watched.

Mr Johnson has long thought himself a Winston Churchill de nos jours but it’s hard to imagine the wartime leader proposing hairdryers to beat the bosh.

Read More: Jason Leitch branded Long Covid kids campaigners 'extremists', inquiry told

Out of touch

As ITV’s chief political correspondent Robert Peston wrote in his explanation of the herd immunity strategy, “ministers are looking with grim bemusement at the debate in football’s governing bodies about banning the public from stadia” which they felt “fuels alarmism”.

In Bergamo, 44,000 of the city’s residents – around a third of the total population – had attended the local team’s Champions League match against Valencia on February 19, something which was later described as a “biological bomb” by medical chiefs. Less than two weeks before the UK announced its own lockdown, Rangers faced Bayer Leverkusen in front of close to 50,000 fans and Liverpool hosted Atletico Madrid in front of a packed Anfield.

The Herald: Bayer Leverkusen fans during the UEFA Europa League round of 16 match at Ibrox Stadium

As suggested by Miss MacNamara in her testimony, perhaps the unfamiliarity of a group largely made of privately-educated men contributed to their “grim bemusement”.

She said: “Nobody who was involved in that discussion had probably ever been to a football game in quite the way that most people go to football games.

“Attending football matches often involves being on crowded public transport, being together in the pub, and in close contact with other fans in areas of the stadium like turnstiles and concourses.

“It bothered me that the policy line was far from the reality as it suggested that the discussions had not involved enough people with broader or real-life perspectives.”

Indeed, it was to an altogether more middle-English sport that another key figure alluded when questioned on his approach.

Read More: Matt Hancock wanted final say on 'who lived and who died' during pandemic


Given his current employment boxing Jermaine Pennant or eating camel penis in the Australian jungle, it’s somewhat hard to believe that Matt Hancock was the UK’s health secretary during a global pandemic.

He displayed, according to Miss MacNamara “nuclear levels” of confidence and declared when asked how he was coping with the pressures of the job “they bowl them at me, I knock them away”.

It’s also jarring to consider that the man who could be found munching on cow anus on prime-time ITV this time last year felt himself to be the natural arbiter of who should live and who should die if the NHS became overwhelmed by the virus.

Former head of the NHS, Lord Simon Stevens, testified: “It did however result in an unresolved but fundamental ethical debate about a scenario in which a rising number of Covid-19 patients overwhelmed the ability of hospitals to look after them and other non-Covid-19 patients.

The Herald: Health Secretary Matt Hancock giving evidence to the Science and Health Committees (House of Commons/PA)

“The secretary of state for health and social care took the position that in this situation he – rather than, say, the medical profession or the public – should ultimately decide who should live and who should die.”

Given his post-pandemic segue into the world of reality TV, it’s to be hoped that a phone-in vote wouldn’t have been the ultimate tie-breaker.

Hancock ultimately resigned in disgrace after being caught breaking social distancing restrictions playing tonsil tennis with Gina Coladangelo, who was his advisor and resolutely was not his wife.

It should be noted that those giving evidence may have chosen to stick with recollections which benefited them. Miss MacNamara testified that she told ministers “I think we're absolutely f****d, I think this country is heading for a disaster, I think we're going to kill thousands of people”, which doesn’t exactly fit with lending a karaoke machine to a lockdown party.

Mr Cummings presents himself as the lone voice of reason taking the situation seriously, which rather ignores his drive to Barnard Castle near Sunderland to “test his eyesight”.

For his part, Mr Johnson is due to testify to the inquiry next month, where he’s expected to say “it was the duty of any pragmatic and responsible leader” to debate the merits of lockdown and the approach the virus.

He probably won’t accuse them of making a big song and dance of it though, karaoke machine or not.