The prime minister is resisting calls to set up an inquiry into the government’s response to the pandemic, but Marcus Shepheard says there is no reason to delay
Last summer the IfG called for a short rapid review into the government’s handling of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Such an exercise would, we argued, help the government be “better prepared for a potential second wave of infection – and to hold that at bay”.
That moment has passed. A year since the first national lockdown was called, it is time for the government to set up a proper public inquiry into the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. The prime minister agrees that an inquiry must be held but insists that it would be an “irresponsible diversion” to do so now. He is wrong.
Ministers need to learn from and confront the mistakes made, and often repeated, throughout the government’s response. With the inquiry into coronavirus set to be incredibly complex, and given the time it takes to get an inquiry up and running, there is no good reason to delay.
With public and political pressure building for a formal inquiry, the unofficial inquiry is already underway. Central figures, like Dominic Cummings, now out of office and able to speak publicly, are setting out their accounts. The off-the-record briefings, and the blame game, have begun.
Holding a formal inquiry as soon as possible would be better than months of acrimonious mud-slinging. As with any public inquiry its ultimate purpose is not to place blame but to establish a clear and truthful account. But until the government sets an inquiry in motion blame and uncertainty will dominate.
And the longer the government delays, the harder it will be for an inquiry to do its work – and to achieve the aim of learning lessons and preventing recurrence. People move on, documents become harder to find, recollections grow hazier and half-truths solidify into firm convictions.
There are political benefits for the prime minister in putting off this inquiry, which will inevitably find fault in some of his decisions and actions. But delaying it is a deep disservice to the public in general, and especially to the victims of coronavirus and their families.
As Labour leader Kier Starmer has noted, this inquiry is about more than an abstract issue of governance. Over 125,000 people have died. Millions more have lost loved ones and livelihoods, seen relationships strained and destroyed, suffered financial hardship and myriad other harms.
Public inquiries commonly serve as the locus for all the emotion that follows a tragedy. For instance, the Grenfell Inquiry began its hearings with days of commemoration for the 72 people who died in the fire.
An inquiry which independently establishes the facts can help reconcile individual grief, but the prime minister has put this reckoning – and the opportunity for a nation to come to terms with what it has lost – on hold.
Even if the inquiry were announced tomorrow it would take some months to get going. The preparatory work before hearings can start includes appointing a chair, counsel and secretary. Terms of reference would need to be agreed. Prosaic but important work like hiring staff, finding offices and hearing rooms, and agreeing procedures all take time. And the inquiry will need to send out requests for reams of documentation even before it starts to think about witnesses.
The government has argued that any inquiry must wait until the pressures of dealing with the covid pandemic have passed; many of the inquiry’s witnesses will be serving ministers and officials, including the prime minister. But at the earliest any inquiry would not start taking evidence until the end of the summer, weeks after the prime minister’s June 21st date for lifting most restrictions. The government can begin the process of establishing the inquiry without the risk of distracting people in government from their main job – getting the UK out of this crisis.
In contrast to its hesitant approach over the coronavirus inquiry, this government has not been shy about establishing other inquiries. Since Boris Johnson became prime minister the government has established at least four public inquiries (with another four being set up in devolved nations).  While many inquiries are announced and sponsored by a secretary of state or a junior minister the most significant ones are typically announced by the prime minister. Theresa May sponsored Grenfell, Leveson was sponsored by David Cameron, and Gordon Brown sponsored Chilcot.
The coronavirus inquiry must be sponsored by Boris Johnson and no-one else, and the prime minister should now go beyond vague acknowledgments of this fact. He must set out a timetable for an inquiry and Parliament must hold him accountable for sticking to it. Far from an inquiry being an irresponsible diversion, the responsible thing for the prime minister to do is to establish a Covid-19 inquiry without delay.
- UK: The Manchester Arena Inquiry, the Brook House Inquiry, the Jermaine Baker Inquiry, and the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry. Scotland: the Sheku Bayoh Inquiry and the Scottish Hospitals Inquiry. Northern Ireland: the Muckamore Abby Hospital Inquiry and the Southern Trust Hospitals Inquiry.