Freedom of Information: News

Government loses 18-month fight to keep ‘Covid lessons learnt’ review secret

Department of Health and Social Care officials battled openDemocracy to avoid releasing the internal document

Jenna Corderoy
Jenna Corderoy
8 November 2022, 12.53pm

Eat Out to Help Out, the government's scheme to encourage the public to return to high street restaurants and cafes in summer 2020. The Department of Health and Social Care has been sitting on a 'lessons learnt' review of the pandemic for 18 months


William Barton / Alamy Stock Photo

The government has backed down in its fight to keep secret a “lessons learnt” review of the Covid pandemic, thanks to an appeal by openDemocracy to the information watchdog.

It means the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has 35 days to finally make the document public.

The DHSC originally refused openDemocracy’s Freedom of Information request for the review, whose existence was revealed by HuffPost UK last year, claiming that the release of information would be “likely to undermine the safe space for experts and government officials to debate live policy issues”.

We fought the decision for 18 months, complaining to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in the process. The DHSC eventually changed its mind and agreed to release the information – though in a sign that the department may still try to drag its feet, officials warned the ICO that its publication “requires ministerial approval which is proving difficult to obtain”.

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That may be because Britain has had three health secretaries in the space of a few months, with Steve Barclay most recently appointed to the role for his second stint in as many months.

The ‘lessons learnt’ review is thought to be the work of civil servants in the DHSC conducting internal assessments of what went wrong to improve best practice.

Refusing to share it, the DHSC told us last year: “Officials and experts should be able to share their views on such an important matter without fear that such comments will be open to the public later on. On a matter that has affected so many lives it is vital that they are able to express themselves freely.”

The department did not explain its change of heart in the latest correspondence from the ICO, and declined to give a formal comment.

Lib Dem MP Layla Moran, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus, said: “Millions of people across the country have had their lives irreparably altered by the pandemic and deserve to know that the government has learnt the lessons from what went wrong.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and nowhere is that more true than the government’s handling of this pandemic. The government has stalled for long enough in publishing these findings.”

An independent inquiry into the UK’s response to the pandemic is already under way. Officially launched in July, the inquiry will examine how well prepared the UK was for a pandemic, as well as the decisions taken by the UK government once Covid arrived.

Last week, it was reported that the inquiry had asked to see Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages during his time as prime minister.

Former health secretary Matt Hancock is very likely to be a witness in the inquiry. He has recently been heavily criticised for his planned appearance in the reality TV show ‘I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!’

Why should you care about freedom of information?

From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?

Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.

Hear from:

Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy

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