Isabel Hardman

The problem with a Covid inquiry

The problem with a Covid inquiry
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Will the government learn the lessons of the public inquiry into its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic? Boris Johnson this afternoon confirmed he was indeed setting one up, to begin in Spring 2022.

True to form, Sir Keir Starmer complained that the inquiry should start sooner; a point he makes with almost every announcement from the government. Johnson was, also true to form, thinking partly of the political landscape over the coming weeks: announcing an inquiry now means he can appear to be on the front foot with learning lessons when Dominic Cummings gives his long-awaited select committee evidence later this month. 

Then there’s the long-term political perspective: No. 10 refused to commit to the inquiry concluding before the next general election. There’s much talk in the Conservative party at the moment of that election being in 2023, given the current strength of the government against an increasingly depressed Labour party. It would be convenient if voters weren’t reminded of the many mistakes made in handling the pandemic by the politicians seeking re-election, but it’s also likely that voters will be far more interested in what those politicians have done to rebuild their communities in the months and years since.

It’s probably wise that Downing Street has decided not to be drawn on timescales for the conclusion of a public inquiry, given their tendency to vastly overshoot their initial deadlines, not to mention their budgets. The Chilcot Inquiry is the most famous of the public inquiries to do this. But things haven’t changed that much since that examination of the Iraq war started in 2009 (it concluded in 2016). The Grenfell fire was just under four years ago and the lessons from that aren’t yet ready to be learned as the inquiry is still going on.

And yet Grenfell is an example of how public inquiries aren’t the only way for governments and industries to learn lessons. The Fire Safety Act, for its many flaws, was introduced as part of the early lessons learnt following the fire. The NHS and government have made changes to the way they’ve treated and tried to prevent the spread of Covid since the early days of the pandemic.

In fact, one of the risks of these inquiries is that by the time they eventually offer some conclusions, the politicians who needed to be held accountable for poor or reckless decision-making are long gone. Tony Blair had left Parliament nine years before he had to respond to Chilcot. Some of the institutional problems identified by the report remained in Whitehall and Westminster. But in the main, it was published into a transformed political landscape.

Johnson took a sombre tone as he gave his statement. He said that the process would ‘place the state’s actions under a microscope’, and that ‘amid such tragedy the state has an obligation to examine its actions as rigorously and candidly as possible, and to learn every lesson for the future’. The question is whether those lessons will still be relevant in the future when an inquiry eventually concludes.

Written byIsabel Hardman

Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of The Spectator and author of Why We Get the Wrong Politicians. She also presents Radio 4’s Week in Westminster.

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