The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group has told Downing Street it wants a statutory public inquiry led by a senior judge to “determine a definitive, official, evidence-based narrative of what did and did not happen, independent of political influence” during the pandemic. The group considers it potentially cathartic and wants the families’ grief heard.
Frontline health workers also want a wide-ranging inquiry to provide a platform for their experiences, while minority ethnic leaders believe an inquiry can only determine what went wrong if wider societal inequalities relating to work, health and housing are investigated.
But while there is no dissent about the need for an inquiry, others fear this remit might be too broad – and fear lessons have to be learned now so the UK can properly protect itself from any future health emergency.
Sir John Bell, the regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, and Lord O’Donnell, head of the civil service under Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, want a different model more narrowly focused on determining future actions.
Ultimately the decision will be for Boris Johnson, who has significant latitude to set the terms and scope of any inquiry, including selection of its chair.
Speaking to the Guardian, Bell, who is also a government adviser on vaccines, warned against a “witch-hunt” and said he did not believe a lengthy public inquiry was the best route to learning from what went wrong. He fears a blame game would threaten preparedness for future crises.
“The one thing we cannot do is pause and wait to get going with a pandemic strategy for the next pandemic,” he said.
He wants a rapid “non-recriminating” review to determine quickly the steps that need to be put in place to protect against fresh pandemics which could be worse.
He highlighted the need not to get bogged down in an inquiry focused heavily on accountability by describing future pandemics as “more threatening than a nuclear war … because it’s more certain to happen”.
O’Donnell wants a public inquiry, but told the Guardian it should be limited to examining governance and decision-making and should be led by an expert in the operation of government and not a judge. He has also said it should not become a forum for the public processing of grief, important though that is, with the impact of bereavement and issues such as access to dying loved ones handled separately.
“A lot of people bay for judge-led inquiries, but judges are not experts on public policy and how structures of government might work,” he said. He suggested a figure such as Lord Macpherson, the former permanent secretary at the Treasury, could chair such an inquiry into governance.
Last year the Commons public administration committee urged consideration of a non-judicial chair in a “forward-looking and policy focused” statutory public inquiry.
Recent inquiries including those looking into the Grenfell Tower disaster, Manchester Arena bombing and the Leveson inquiry into press practices have been led by current or retired judges. The ongoing child sexual abuse inquiry is led by a social worker, Prof Alexis Jay, while the Iraq war inquiry was led by the career civil servant Sir John Chilcot.
O’Donnell and Bell’s concerns are echoed by some other scientists. However, others believe it should be possible to learn rapid lessons for the future in science or statecraft while also allowing an inquiry to provide a platform for the bereaved to seek answers and justice.
The Grenfell Tower inquiry has achieved some of that. Its first stage involved a series of moving testimonies from the bereaved. Its second was a relatively rapid assessment of what went wrong on the night of the fire which produced safety recommendations, many of which have already been implemented. Its latest ongoing stage is a forensic dive into the years of decision-making before the fire.
The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group cites the inquiry into the Hillsborough disaster, which produced an interim report in less than four months.
It also argues that, for the bereaved, a public inquiry is “likely to be the only way they can obtain answers to what happened to their loved ones, and whether the death could have been prevented”. It says the government has a duty to investigate under the European convention on human rights which demands it in cases where there is an arguable case that there has been a breach of the duty to protect life.
Other investigation formats are available if Downing Street chooses to defy rising pressure for a statutory public inquiry. Sir Ian Boyd, professor of biology at the University of St Andrews, who sits on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) suggested a royal commission given the potentially massive scope of a Covid-19 inquiry. Royal commissions are essentially committees of experts convened to investigate an issue with fewer evidence-gathering powers.
“The great danger is that we end up with a process which is more about apportioning blame than about learning lessons and that would probably be worse than useless,” he told the Guardian, speaking in a personal capacity.