Brian Cathcart explains why political parties should back calls in a letter published today in the Financial Times to commit right now to holding a public inquiry into the UK’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic.

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Do you trust this Government, once the worst of the COVID-19 crisis has passed, to give you a fair and accurate account of what happened? Do you think Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Dominic Raab and Matt Hancock will willingly tell all about the ‘herd immunity’ idea, the supply of ventilators or the conduct of Government departments? Or even about the number of deaths? 

Of course not. All governments are bad at accounting honestly for their actions and this Government – let us remember the suppression of the report into Russian interference in the UK which has never been published – has shown itself to be spectacularly bad. 

What about our news media? Do you trust them to ferret out the facts and lay the bald truth before the public? Again, of course not. Most of the national press is so close to the Government that their interests are indistinguishable and most of the broadcast media show little appetite for thinking independently. It is far more likely that the most powerful people in the news industry are already doing their best to bury the truth forever and to distract us from it in every way they can. 

Yet, we need to know that truth.

Thousands are dying in the UK, many more are suffering serious illness, and huge numbers of people are taking grave risks day after day to help others. Meanwhile the rest of us are experiencing an unprecedented and often highly stressful disruption to our daily lives. We have an undeniable right to know how prepared the country really was for this pandemic and how good its response has been. 

More than that – since it seems certain that this is only the first pandemic of its kind – we desperately need to learn the lessons of what has happened so that we can start preparing for the next one. That means we cannot allow this experience to be spun out of memory by the disinformation wizards. We can’t allow ourselves to be gaslit into believing, without convincing evidence, that this has simply been another proud tale of plucky Britons overcoming adversity. 

We need a public inquiry – and of the right kind. 

A Cross-Party Inquiry

The idea has been in the air for weeks but today, in the Financial Times, a group of prominent peers and eminent healthcare experts led by Lord Kerslake, the former Civil Service boss who chaired the inquiry into the Manchester Arena terrorist attack, have put down an important marker. 

In a letter to the editor, they call on all political parties to commit now to holding a timely inquiry under the 2005 Inquiries Act – meaning that it would be public and would have the powers to get answers. They also call on the parties to set up this inquiry on a cross-party basis, so that no one party can control the process. 

It is not too early to ask for this. With so much doubt and anxiety in the air, people are entitled to be reassured right now that there will be a full and fair accounting at the end of this – and that the inquiry will not be hamstrung in advance by some kind of partisan political trickery. 

Nor does the proposal in the letter distract from the urgent business of tackling the medical emergency right now. “All that is needed,” as it points out, “is for the main political parties to confirm publicly that they will work to make it happen.”

If we get these commitments, we will then be confident that “without undue delay” – as the letter puts it – a prominent, independent figure commanding cross-party approval will be in charge of ensuring that the hard questions are asked and answered.

Those questions should include: 

  • Did NHS cuts contribute to problems in meeting the challenge? 
  • Did ministers ignore warnings or were the warnings unclear? 
  • How good are the scientific models and were the best ones used? 
  • What really happened to supplies of ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE)? 
  • Why was the UK slow to test and did that make a difference in terms of the number of lives lost? 
  • Did Heathrow Airport really remain open with people on incoming flights unchecked? 
  • How reliable are the Government’s published figures for the sick and the dead? 
  • Has the UK performed better or worse in this crisis than other countries? 

The letter is signed by some very eminent individuals including Lord Robert Winston, Sir Muir Gray and Professor Martin McKee, and by cross-bench peers such as Lord Kerslake and Lord Adebowale, and by senior affiliated peers such as the Conservative Lord (Chris) Patten, the Liberal Democrat Lord (Tom) McNally and Labour’s Baroness (Helena) Kennedy. 

Tough Questions Will Be Asked

As everyone knows, inquiries can have their problems. They can get bogged down and drag on for so long that any message they deliver loses much of its value. Or they can reach resounding conclusions that governments then fail to implement. 

If the political parties accept the proposal in the letter, those drafting the terms of reference and choosing the chair will be able to anticipate such outcomes – and that work will be done on cross-party terms. No one party, in other words, can insist on arrangements that might subtly doom the inquiry to failure. 

And even if it proves impossible to set a time limit or to ensure that the lessons will be properly acted upon, at the very least we will know this: that the tough questions will actually be asked, out in the open and by professional inquisitors, and the key people will be required, under oath, to explain to the public what they did and why.

So, it’s up to the political leaders. Will they back a proper inquiry on cross-party terms or wait and see?


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