With the prime minister confirming that there will be a full public coronavirus inquiry, Marcus Shepheard identifies the steps that need to be taken to ensure it succeeds
Last month we called for a full public inquiry into the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, so the prime minister’s confirmation that “the state has an obligation to examine its actions as rigorously and candidly as possible, and to learn every lesson for the future” is welcome. Understanding how decisions were made and learning lessons for the future is vital. However, a number of issues require answers now if the inquiry is to succeed in its mission.
The first concerns the timing of the inquiry. We called for the inquiry to be established this month; Johnson has said it will start in the spring of 2022. Does this mean the inquiry will actually start its hearings then, or merely be set up at that time? The prime minister’s insistence that the government needed to conserve resources in case of a third wave hints at the latter.
This would be the wrong approach. The longer the inquiry is delayed, the longer the wait for accountability – and the greater the opportunity for anonymous briefings and blame-gaming to fill the vacuum. It will take time to appoint staff, find offices and begin preliminary work such as preparing document requests. But while this inquiry will be large, likely the largest ever in modern history, its needs are tiny relative to the scale of government. The UK civil service employs 430,000 people; the team of 60 or so officials needed to run the inquiry is not a significant burden.
The purported concern that the inquiry would be a distraction to front-line healthcare workers or officials managing the response to a potential third wave is also overblown. The process of setting up an inquiry does not involve harrying key people for information. Inquiries have traditionally been deferential to ongoing events and other demands that individuals of interest to them face. We would expect the coronavirus inquiry to do exactly the same.
Appointing a chair, ideally a senior judge, and a panel of independent advisors, is the next step – as the chair needs to be in place to have a say on the draft terms of reference. The government can begin consulting on these now. Doing this, and clearing administrative hurdles, right away will enable the inquiry to start its work in earnest next year.
The prime minister should ensure that the inquiry is independent and not working to an arbitrary deadline. Johnson's critics accuse him of deliberately trying to prevent the inquiry from reporting until after the next election, potentially less than two years from his spring 2022 launch date (most inquiries take around two years, though this one is expected to take longer than average). And as noted his reasoning for waiting another year from now is weak. But it is also important to remember that the inquiry’s first priority is to inform future pandemic handling and provide lessons for government, not to influence the electorate as they head to the polls.
To avoid any perception that the inquiry has been 'shelved' or hidden from the public during its work, and to let government start learning lessons as soon as possible, the coronavirus inquiry should be structured in a way that delivers routine findings, for example through interim reports, rather than a single, long and dense report, years after the fact. This is not uncommon – as one look at the 13 volumes of the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war will attest.
The prime minister needs to explain what he means by “working closely” with the devolved administrations
Johnson noted that responding to the pandemic has required efforts from “every part of the state”, suggesting an inquiry that looks at the entire UK response. However, for legal, political and practical reasons, a single inquiry that could examine how decisions were made in both Whitehall and the devolved administrations is impractical and unlikely.
Many key aspects of the coronavirus response were devolved, such as the management of hospitals and the timing and extent of school closures and lockdowns. We need to understand how decisions about those were made in Holyrood, Cardiff and Stormont just as much as Whitehall; and this require separate inquiries in each of the four nations.
The inquiry should focus on how decisions were made – what evidence informed decisions, what options were discarded and why, and how lobbying and political pressure affected the ministers and officials who took key decisions. There needs to be a robust public discussion across the whole of the UK about what needs to be covered, and the leaders of the devolved administrations will have a key role to play, alongside the chair, parliament, and others, in determining the shape of the inquiry.
First, however, the prime minister needs to publish the draft terms of reference and ensure that the inquiry will be ready to take evidence from spring 2022.