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Curiouser and Curiouser …

Government orders inquiry into what it did about Covid. Government takes inquiry to court for wanting to know what it did about Covid. Confused? You should be. As our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, the murky undercurrents are matched by revived agonies of the pandemic’s victims.

Faced with what looked like a deadly crisis on a par with the so-called Spanish flu outbreak of a century ago, leaders all over the world were floundering. Understandably.

How well or otherwise the British authorities performed, compared to regimes elsewhere, is essentially a question for the history books.

Step one in this very long journey is the in-depth look by former Appeal Court judge Baroness Heather Hallett, into what steps and missteps were taken.

She was given the job eighteen months ago by Boris Johnson, who it seems is now enjoying the sight of Rishi Sunak squirming under the spotlight.

At the heart of this byzantine saga is Number Ten’s worry that if every single utterance by every single minister is open to all it simply can’t do its job.

A point of principle that’s going to be slugged out before the beak in coming weeks. All a bit Custer’s last stand, mind, as ministers don’t think they’ll win.

Hallett’s team will argue, probably successfully, that it’s for her inquiry, not the government, to decide what’s relevant and what isn’t.

So she wants to see the whole shebang – diaries, emails and, most controversially, WhatsApp messages – before she decides what to put in her report.

And to all appearances Johnson’s undercutting his successor with promises to hand Hallett everything she wants. From him, at least.

Rumour has it he wasn’t dead chuffed at the part Sunak played in getting him chucked out, though any suggestion he’s getting own back is terribly unkind.

When it does finally get fully under way, the inquiry will sift through evidence about government decisions on vaccines and other potential remedies.

This will bring into sharp focus the question of whether lives were lost needlessly.

There’ll also be searching questions about contracts for things like personal protection equipment, and whether money was wasted on ministers’ chums.

The whiff of corruption and the sense of a careless and uncaring government will feed into the mix of lawbreaking and lockdown-busting parties.

Then there’ll be the inevitable unguarded comments by people not only in power but also in a blind panic, as the scale of the crisis became clearer.

Doubtless Johnson’s own colourful turn of phrase will get a thorough airing.

It’s claimed, for example, that he completely lost his rag one day and said: ‘No more f***ing lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands.’

This disputed story broke a while back, but there could be plenty more where that came from.

Maybe ministers in future will take take heed of the following waggish tip from Times columnist and former Tory MP Matthew Parris:

‘They should communicate only in public lavatories with the taps running, like British spies meeting undercover contacts in Moscow.’

In the unlikely event that they do, it’d be a bit late now. Meaning we’ve got lots of lurid lines to look forward to in the report, when the time comes.

Against that, that time’s likely to be a very long time coming. If past top-level inquiries are anything to go by, the verdict might have to wait fifteen years.

And who knows where we’ll be by then? Will artificial intelligence have wiped out humanity, as top scientists warned last week that it might?

On a cheerier note, there’s every possibility that Vladimir Putin will have shuffled off this mortal coil by then.

Indeed, if the latest Russian runes are anything to go by, he could be headed for the buffers a lot sooner than that.

The thug who runs the mercenary Wagner Group has challenged his authority by threatening to pull out of Ukraine if his henchmen don’t get their act together.

And, in what appears to be a first on Kremlin-approved television, an opposition politician has openly called for a new president to be elected next year.

Be rather nice if this guy got the job, as he’s been a vocal critic of the war ever since the invasion.

On the home front, meanwhile, Westminster’s finally getting to grips with the issue that’s really got to us all, if telly news is anything to go by.

ITV’s chief executive will be quizzed by a commons select committee in a week or so about the fallout from the Phillip Schofield scandal.

The now ex This Morning presenter has already been on the box to lay bare his anguish about what he’s described as his ‘unwise but not illegal’ affair.

But sorry really does seem to be the hardest word, as Elton John so lucratively pointed out all those years back.

Schofield’s crack at it last week was up there with former Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg’s mea culpa a decade ago, over his broken promise on uni tuition fees.

It’s only now that his party’s managed to uncouple itself from that little whoops-a-daisy, and contemplate a possible deal with Labour come the election.

But the issue remains as much of a can of worms as ever, which is why Sir Keir Starmer was tiptoeing round it last week with almost balletic delicacy.

When he went for the Labour leadership three years ago he mooted uni for free. But since then has ditched the idea, along with most of the rest of his pitch.

Now, however, he’s come up with an alternative promise. If not getting a degree buckshee, students may be offered a cut in their monthly loan repayments.

Confusingly, however, Starmer insists this won’t involve the government taxing or borrowing more.

As to exactly where the money will come from, that’s still work in progress. Yet another reminder that questions in this area are easier asked than answered.

Another question that took a moment or so to answer in Cornwall last week was, er, what the hell is that?

Smallish, reddish and furry, the unexpected visitor to Freshpoint greengrocers in Newquay looked ever so cute, but of uncertain heritage.

‘Are you sure it isn’t just a big funny coloured cat?’ queried the boss.

Staff eventually agreed the creature ambling towards them, apparently without a care in the world, was actually a red panda.

And like a lot of big cats, not terribly friendly to humans, even when they’re only cubs.

Against that, on the grounds that the fluffy pussy looked, in one of the workers’ words, ‘a bit peckish’, the obvious solution was to offer an apple.

This did seem to do nicely, for as long as it took for the owners to arrive and take her back home – to nearby Newquay Zoo.

While they were on their way to sort out naughty Sundara and teach her that self-service wasn’t really the best option, the police did their best to help out.

Not the easiest of tasks, in the event. As they’d never come across this sort of problem.

Inspector Guy Blackford wryly observed on Twitter: ‘Panda rescue is not a topic taught in police training yet.’

Never say never, eh?


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