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There needs to be a rapid review on coronavirus as part of a full public inquiry

A rapid review into the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis is also essential to be better prepared for a second wave

A full-scale public inquiry into the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis is inevitable, but Emma Norris says a rapid review is also essential to be better prepared for a second wave

With over 40,000 confirmed deaths to date, the UK appears to have experienced one of the highest death rates in the world from coronavirus. The government has been criticised over testing capacity, personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilator procurement, and the timing and implementation of the lockdown. A crisis of this scale warrants a full public inquiry, but an inquiry of this size and complexity will take time. There should be a rapid exercise in learning lessons as a precursor to a full inquiry, to ensure government is better prepared for a potential second wave of infection – and to hold that at bay.

A public inquiry must happen, but it will not be quick enough to learn lessons needed this year

Full statutory public inquiries have long been the accepted method for investigating and understanding major public disasters and crises. For good reason: their scope and powers – including to compel the release of documents, call witnesses and take evidence under oath – make them well placed to understand what happened and why; to hold people to account; and to bring about change. These powers will be important in satisfying the magnitude of public concern over the coronavirus response – and the need for answers.

But public inquiries take time to complete their work, with the average inquiry lasting for almost three years. Many take much longer – the Al-Sweady Inquiry ran for five years, the Chilcot Inquiry almost seven, and the Saville Inquiry some 12 years to produce a final report. The enormity of the questions that inquiries examine means a lengthy timescale is often necessary – and any coronavirus inquiry will need to be wide-ranging in its scope. It will look at issues of blame and accountability, and will set out recommendations to help government and others better prepare and respond to future pandemics. But it will be too slow to help shape the government’s response to a second wave of this pandemic, or to improve its ability to ensure one is avoided.

Lessons should be learned now in case of a second wave of coronavirus

A second wave could hit in the autumn or winter. To prepare, government should announce a rapid review to learn from what has worked, and what has not, in its response to date. There have been some successes, such as in the economic package. But there have also been serious problems with decision making and delivery, such as procurement of PPE, the test and trace efforts, the protection of care homes and the implementation of lockdown policies and their easing – most recently in relation to school opening.

One route is for a rapid review to be the first phase of a full inquiry. However, it is unlikely that the government will want the political pressure of doing a rapid review under the 2005 Inquiries Act, with all the statutory powers that brings (although the Act should be used for the full public inquiry). But a rapid review called by government, with an independent chair and a transparent process is far more likely to create legitimacy and confidence in its findings than anything hidden away behind the scenes.

This exercise should be launched as soon as possible to gather lessons, reporting by the early autumn and sharing early findings with government and the public as they emerge, to maximise the opportunities for government to change and to build trust with citizens. It should not be about apportioning blame for the first phase of this crisis – but learning lessons quickly.

This is a short timeline, and the government scientists are right that not all information will be available. But as the chief scientific adviser and chief medical officer acknowledged, there is already a great deal more information now than at the start of the pandemic. By instigating a rapid review, the government can better understand and articulate what was not known at the start of its coronavirus response, what is known now, and where gaps in knowledge still exist.

Recommendations should be implemented

A rapid review is designed to ensure rapid change, but ensuring  change occurs has usually been the weakest part of inquiry processes. Sometimes this is because an inquiry produces hundreds of unclear recommendations. In other cases, such as the inquiry into the failings of the Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust, government has failed to follow through on key recommendations.

To give it the best chance of success, a rapid review should be led by people who carry authority and expertise in public health, epidemiology and in government itself. Deep knowledge of how government works will better equip the review to get access, build trust and develop feasible recommendations. If the review includes expertise on delivery and implementation, given this has been a weakness in the government response to date, that would be even better.

Responsibility also falls to parliament, which must use the select committee system to hold the government to account.

A full public inquiry is crucial for holding decision makers to account, providing answers to victims and their families, and setting out the changes needed to help us tackle future pandemics. But the government, and the country, cannot afford to wait. The government must learn lessons now if it is to make the right adjustments to the UK coronavirus response to date and help save lives in the event of a second wave.


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