Preparations for a no-deal Brexit made the UK government “match fit” for the pandemic, Michael Gove has told the Covid inquiry.
Lady Hallett has heard evidence from several witnesses claiming that planning for no-deal, which was codenamed Operation Yellowhammer, diverted staff and resources inside government in the 18 months before the virus broke out in January 2020.
But Mr Gove, who was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in charge of planning for a no deal scenario in the run-up to the pandemic, insisted civil servants learned key skills in crisis management which equipped them to deal with the outbreak of the virus.
Civil servants “honed and refined” these crisis skills as under Operation Yellowhammer, the Cabinet minister told Lady Hallett.
In previous evidence, Katharine Hammond, who was head of the Cabinet Office civil contingencies secretariat overseeing UK emergency planning, told the inquiry that officials had been distracted by no deal Brexit planning.
The inquiry has also heard how a board overseeing Exercise Cygnus, the planning for a flu pandemic, did not meet while Operation Yellowhammer was underway.
But Mr Gove said: “I do believe that it [no deal planning] was helpful for all government to be operating at that pace because we made government more match fit overall, for the terrible events that this inquiry has been set up to look at.”
Asked by Kate Blackwell, KC for the inquiry, whether the diversion of workforce to no-deal meant there was a “detrimental effect” on planning for a pandemic, Mr Gove said: “I haven’t yet seen any activity that has been identified that would have enabled us to significantly better deal with the Covid-19 pandemic that did not occur as a direct result of EU exit.”
He added: “The nature, the pace and the intensity of the work undoubtedly placed pressure on individuals in the system, but it also ensured a greater degree of match fitness for what none of us anticipated, but what was to come the year after.”
Mr Gove did suggest, however, in referring to the focus on planning for a major flu outbreak rather than a different virus like Covid, left a “huge hole in the middle” of the government’s capacity.
He also said that the way elderly patients were discharged from hospitals was handled is an “object of regret and concern”.