Matthew Parris Matthew Parris

The one question the Covid Inquiry must ask

The Covid Inquiry grinds on. The process is ‘too focused on office tittle-tattle’ says one former minister in my newspaper this morning. Possibly – though it may also be that the warped focus consists in the media reports filtering out the worthier but more boring stuff. The inquiry (say others) is too focused on the speed or otherwise with which Britain locked down, rather than whether we should ever have locked down as we did in the first place. Others too complain that the inquisition is overly focused on ‘gotcha’ headlines when better results would flow from a sober review that accepted that everyone was doing their best.

There’s truth in each of these complaints but I don’t think they get to the heart of it. I have a different view.

However conducted, and with whatever focus, all inquiries like this will of necessity suffer from one crippling disadvantage. Whether in an aggressive or constructive manner, they invite people to try to justify what they did. Human beings, however, will almost always after the event try to justify what we do.

Most of us are never going to revisit past decisions in a reproachful spirit

It’s often firstly ourselves we mislead. We habitually put the best gloss we can on our past actions. It’s part of staying sane – we have to live with ourselves, after all: we have to be able to look ourselves in the eye. Besides, we know we meant well. What would be the point of crying over spilt milk? We are (quite healthily) not disposed to beat ourselves up, particularly when, as with lockdown, we’ve invested two years of serious personal inconvenience in a plan of action. We bridle at being asked to disavow such an investment.

Don’t, in short, ask a human being if he can justify what he did.

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