1. The function of a public inquiry into the UK Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is to address the three following questions:
- What happened?
- Why did it happen?
- What can be done to prevent this from happening again?
The UK has suffered one of the worst health1 and wealth2 outcomes of comparable countries due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is imperative that the UK public, institutions, the Houses of Parliament, devolved administrations and the UK Government understand how this happened in the UK.
Unlike other forms of inquiry, audit or inquest, the public inquiry into the UK’s handling of the pandemic must be a statutory one, commissioned under the Inquiries Act 2005, with the powers to compel witnesses to give evidence under oath and to produce documents, as promised by the Prime Minister on 12 May 2021. While a statutory public inquiry will not be able to determine criminal or civil liability, it will be able to highlight where failings have occurred and lessons need to be learned and implemented.
Public inquiries can take years and cost vast amounts of public money. During this time, institutions may change and key people involved in the decision making may leave office. The public inquiry’s findings and relevant recommendations can be diluted by the length of time that it takes to deliver the inquiry’s conclusions.
For this reason, and because a significant amount of evidence is already available or in the public domain, there is a compelling argument for starting the inquiry as soon as possible.
2. The commissioning of a public inquiry is set out in the Inquiries Act 20053, which requires the Minister to appoint the chair, to determine the terms of reference, the start date and budget allocation.
If the findings of a public inquiry are to enjoy public trust, the process needs to be completely impartial. This will require transparency and good communication throughout. The Government must ensure that there is no political or Governmental interference in the setting up and management of the inquiry, including the appointment of the Chair and panel members.
3. The terms of reference of the statutory public inquiry into the UK Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic should be determined by public consultation.
The terms of reference define the scope of the public inquiry. There is no statutory duty to consult, but in practice wide public consultation on the terms of reference will be instrumental in building public trust into the public inquiry and its findings.
In the case of the pandemic, where every sector of society has been affected, consideration must be given to making sure that consultation is wide, but also manageable, such that it does not result in undue delay to the public inquiry.
To manage the question of wide public consultation, consideration should be given to the proposal that Parliamentarians consult their constituencies on the terms of reference.
In order to maintain trust throughout the inquiry, the public should be continually informed on the progress of the inquiry. This will require a communications team and a plan for regular public engagement.
4. Witnesses and organisations giving evidence to the statutory public inquiry should be bound by a duty of candour to ensure that they cooperate with the inquiry in an open, honest and transparent way.
5. The structure of the statutory public inquiry will have a significant and direct impact on the time taken for the inquiry to reach and publish findings and conclusions.
Structuring the inquiry into different ‘workstreams’ overseen by sub-panels of experts with knowledge of the fields being scrutinised would enable concurrent working on different aspects of the pandemic and avoid the inquiry taking too long to reach and publish findings and conclusions. The interconnected nature of decision making will require cooperation and coordination between each of the sub-panels. All sub-panels should bring findings and conclusions to the top-level panel, accountable to the Chair of the statutory public inquiry.
Management of the pandemic has not been solely the competence of the UK Government. Certain competences, including health and education, are devolved matters. As such, many decisions relating to pandemic management were made by devolved administrations and would be outside the scope of a UK wide inquiry. As already announced by the Scottish Government, each devolved administration should hold its own public inquiry relating to matters within their competence. Consideration should be given as to the coordination of the different inquiries.
Maximum use must be made of the work that has already been done, for example by the National Audit Office, on NHS capacity, the state of adult social care and about health and inequalities.
6. The Public Inquiry’s unique competence will be the ability to scrutinise the UK Government’s decision-making process during the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK. It should identify what was known at the time, which organisations, committees and individuals were listened to and how advice was weighted in order to establish the timeliness, quality and consequence of key decisions. For any recommendation made by the inquiry to be practical and meaningful, the inquiry should include consideration of the UK’s resilience and preparedness ahead of the pandemic.
The institutional capacity for learning during the crisis should also be considered. The same mistakes appear to have been repeated on matters such as decisions on when to lock down. The inquiry needs to look at why learning appears not to have been applied to UK Government policy.
The experience of, and measures taken by, other countries are key considerations which should have influenced the UK Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK. The inquiry should therefore scrutinise the UK Government’s response compared to other countries, and establish what the UK Government did or should have learned from the pandemic response of other countries.
7. Interim findings, conclusions and recommendations made by the public inquiry should be published throughout the course of the inquiry, setting out immediate lessons learned and actions that should be taken. Their implementation should be tracked by the chair and panel overseeing the inquiry.
8. Recommendations must be practical and workable. To this end, it may be valuable, as has happened in the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust Public Inquiry, to hold a series of seminars before reporting, in order to develop the recommendations and make them as implementable as possible.
9. There is no legal obligation to implement any recommendations made by a public inquiry. Parliament and the relevant Select Committees should have continued oversight of any implemented recommendations after the public inquiry has concluded.
10. Memorialisation of the COVID-19 pandemic will be a key part of the Public Inquiry. Commemoration will allow the UK to remember those whose lives were lost or changed during the pandemic and enable the UK to bear witness to the events, to acknowledge failures, and ensure that lessons learnt and recommendations made by the public inquiry are implemented.