It is time for a public inquiry. The coronavirus crisis has been an extraordinary period for the UK, and the toll substantial. More than 127,000 people have died, children have lost years of education, and we have seen the largest drop in GDP since consistent records began more than half a century ago.
There have been myriad other harms to individual livelihoods, and to wellbeing. Much of this flows from decisions made in Whitehall. While the government has done some things well – the vaccine programme is an undisputed success so far – there are sincere, legitimate questions about many of its other choices.
International comparisons are imperfect. Even still, on almost every measure the UK has performed worse than similar nations, suggesting that things could have been different. Understanding how decisions were made, and specific choices taken, is important and can only be gained through a comprehensive, independent public inquiry.
The prime minister has promised such an inquiry, though only in vague terms. He should announce it now. This will allow time for a national debate around what it should cover, for terms of reference to be set, and for the inquiry itself to be set up. Contrary to the prime minister’s repeated assertions, this would not distract from the his government’s work of managing the crisis now. It is unlikely that an inquiry would call witnesses before the winter.
But the longer the government waits, the longer the wait for accountability. Crucially, it also delays any lessons that can be learned to help the government manage the next crisis better (or a resurgence of Covid in the UK, though we all desperately hope this won’t be the case). The government missed opportunities to do this between the first and second waves of the pandemic; it should not make this mistake again.
The lack of an inquiry has created a vacuum in the discourse around the crisis. This has been filled with a briefing war, and a blame game of anonymous comments and contradictory statements. This is unhelpful and only undermines public confidence.
Accountability matters. Despite what the government says, investigations by the National Audit Office or parliamentary select committees – while all valuable – are no substitute for a public inquiry. They do not have the powers, remit and independence to investigate what happened and present a truthful account of this to the public: an inquiry, chaired by a judge and supported by an expert panel, would. This is the right way to do accountability.
This inquiry needs to look closely at how decisions were made. What was the state of knowledge at the time? Whose views shaped the choices made by ministers, including the prime minister, and officials? Equally, what were the choices not made? Some of this has been made public – Sage has published its minutes, and other records have been shared (or leaked). But again these are no substitute for an inquiry.
Setting the breadth of the inquiry will be a challenge, with so much ground to cover. Big strategic decisions around lockdowns, school closures and international travel intertwine with operational decisions in the NHS, procurement and testing programmes. There are also questions around the joint decision-making between the devolved administrations and Whitehall, which after a strong start deteriorated over the summer of 2020.
Inquiries can be powerful tools for change and their recommendations are, or at least should be, taken seriously. However, there are too many examples where they are not implemented. Sometimes this is due to political resistance, but other times it is simply due to a lack of oversight. Things get forgotten, people move on and nobody keeps track of the work.
The scale of this crisis demands better. The terms of reference for inquiry should include a clear accountability mechanism. This would identify other institutions that can scrutinise the government’s follow-up on the recommendations. Parliamentary select committees are one – they should hold ministers and officials accountable for progress on their implementation. The government should also commit, from the outset, to transparent reporting of how it is changing as a result. Members of the inquiry – in particular the nonjudicial figures of any panel – also need to become public advocates for this work even after its core investigative function has ended.
A coronavirus inquiry will not be easy, or quick, but it is vital. The prime minister should act now.