When the Covid-19 inquiry arrives it must be of a different kind, not bound by standard models of what the process should look likeby Lawrence Freedman / August 4, 2020 / Leave a comment
The government has promised a public inquiry into the UK’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Given the high death toll, spread in care homes, problems with testing and personal protective equipment, it had little choice.
Yet public inquiries, though regularly demanded and occasionally delivered, can be frustrating affairs, not so much because of their conclusions but because of the time taken to reach them. Moreover, this crisis is far from over. The epidemiologists’ warnings that Covid-19 would be hard to suppress have turned out to be correct and, while vaccine developments are encouraging, mass inoculation is still months away. An inquiry that did not begin until the pandemic was declared to be over might produce a measure of delayed accountability and some obvious lessons for the next health emergency but would have little value in helping us address the current set of challenges. Yet, at such a demanding time, an inquiry now could well be an additional burden for hard-pressed ministers and their departments. Is there a way to set things in motion to get timely results in a way that does not turn into a major distraction?
First, we need to decide what we want from an inquiry. There are usually three basic objectives. The first is to provide a reliable account of what actually happened. This requires looking at the processes of decision-making, from the gathering of information and identification of options to practical implementation. The second is to expose wrongdoing, for example culpable negligence or errors which, even with the benefit of hindsight, were clearly egregious. The third is to “learn lessons,” which normally take the form of recommendations to improve processes.
The panel of the Iraq Inquiry, on which I sat, decided, after toying with a shorter report, that it had to go for a detailed account of the sequence of events being covered. Some eight years of decision-making was being assessed. This helps explain why the report took us so long to complete. Given the controversies surrounding the decision to go to war and, to be frank, the expectations that the inquiry was there to provide a whitewash, the detail was vital, even though this involved tortuous negotiations on getting key documents declassified. In the end the advantage of this approach…