Of all the many reasons why Boris Johnson must establish an inquiry into the UK’s coronavirus pandemic, one towers above all others in moral importance. Deaths from Covid-19 have been far higher in the UK than in any other European country. More than 126,000 of our people have died, and the figure will rise. The UK figure is the fifth highest in the world; the four countries with higher totals – the US, Brazil, Mexico and India – all have much larger populations. The pandemic has now killed many more British civilians than the second world war did. Any nation would be entitled to know why and learn the lessons of such loss. Britain is entitled to those answers too.
The terms of reference of the inquiry must be wide. No important questions should be off-limits. No department, agency or supplier should be excused accountability. No individual should be above scrutiny. The inquiry must cover the whole United Kingdom and must take into account international experience too. It must be independent. A judge should either lead it or play a very senior role. This process will take time. But the exercise should be given a firm deadline. Ideally, it should start now, and complete work by mid-2023. For the sake of the pandemic’s victims and those who have lost loved ones in such harrowing times, the inquiry must not be allowed to drag on as others have done. The learning of lessons cannot be put off indefinitely.
Several subjects stand out as essential blocks of the inquiry. The first and most important concerns preparedness and resilience. We need to know whether Britain was sufficiently primed for the pandemic, and whether resources, training and structures for responding were adequate. Dominic Cummings made some chilling claims about this on Wednesday. Proper resilience is something our generation urgently owes to the future. A full century separated the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-20 from the Covid pandemic of 2020-21, but we cannot assume – particularly amid 21st-century global environmental degradation – that it will be another 100 years before the next pandemic strikes.
Improved resilience will only be the start, however. The inquiry will also need to examine the content, quality and timing of the various lockdown decisions of the last 12 months, as well as later decisions to loosen restrictions. Whether these choices were timely, sufficient or effective will be key lessons. Decision-making by ministers, including those in the devolved administrations and local government, must come under the microscope. So must the actions and advice of those who influenced them, whether formally, as in the case of medical, scientific and economic advisers, or informally, through parliament, the media and in other ways. The quality of public messaging, press coverage and the role of social media have to be scrutinised too.
Particular attention will have to be paid to the most heavily affected sectors. The starting point here is clearly NHS staffing, resourcing and equipment. Issues include the supply of personal protective equipment, emergency beds, and the knock-on effect on non-Covid conditions. The care home sector will be central, given that around 40,000 care home residents have died from Covid in the past year, almost a third of all deaths. The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on black and minority ethnic communities will be an essential part of the process too. Decisions affecting NHS test and trace, vaccines, and border controls – as well as associated procurement and contractual decisions – must be thoroughly examined too. Particular scandals may require special and separate investigations alongside the main inquiry. These must not become devices for delaying the main work.
Mr Johnson has equivocated over an inquiry for too long. In his view it is never quite the right time to start. But the series of reports and commentaries we have published this week show why it has become intolerable to put all this off any longer. If the English roadmap out of lockdown is followed, the bulk of current restrictions will be lifted in June. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are likely to emerge on similar schedules. The inquiry should therefore be ready to hit the ground running in June too. But the preparation should start right now.