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We need a coronavirus public inquiry now

Thursday 29 October 2020

If the government won’t do it, we will


When the British Medical Journal first made the case for a public inquiry into the UK’s response to Covid-19 it said the traditional model wouldn’t do. The Bloody Sunday and Iraq War inquiries took years, it noted in an editorial. And “we do not have time”.

That was in May. Even then the BMJ sounded desperate: “With some of the highest death rates anywhere and clear problems in implementing an effective, joined-up response, the UK needs answers within months, before a second wave develops.”

The second wave is now upon us. Lessons that could have been driven home by an inquiry – test everywhere, test quickly, trace contacts as if lives depend on it because they do – have scarcely begun to sink in. Official messaging is so confusing that the prime minister cannot explain it and welders on assignment in the Isle of Man can find themselves in jail for wearing masks while buying lunch in Tesco. Instead of accepting the need for a timely accounting, ministers mark their own homework and scold opposition MPs for doing their jobs.

The frustration is palpable – in parliament, in the public square and on the health service front line. The British Medical Association, the Health Service Journal and the Parliament and Health Service Ombudsman have joined the BMJ in calling for a judge-led public inquiry – now, not when it’s too late.

The case is clear and urgent. Clear, because 42,000 people have died and Britain’s excess death rate is higher than for any comparable advanced economy. Urgent, because the longer it is delayed the more scope those responsible will have to varnish the record, and the more inclined a weary public may be to let them.

The government’s position is that the appropriate time will come, and it will tell us when. But the stakes are too high to leave the timing to the witnesses.

So we’ve decided to hold an inquiry ourselves. Our evidence collection has already begun and will continue with a call for submissions from members, the public and other interested parties over the next six weeks. Then, over three days in November and December, Tortoise will convene a series of 15 investigations of the key moments and decisions in a nine-month effort to control the virus that by any reasonable standard or comparison has failed. The question is: why?

Why did the UK lose a vital month at the start of the pandemic when it could have learned from the experience of Italy instead of repeating it?

Why was testing abandoned and lockdown postponed in March when the need for both was clear from every other country that had faced the virus?

Why did NHS doctors and nurses face the first wave without adequate protective equipment and why were so many resources channeled to Nightingale hospitals that in the end weren’t needed?

Why were thousands of elderly patients moved from hospitals to care homes without screening to ensure they were not carrying the virus?

Why has public confidence in the government’s response collapsed? Why was the surge in demand for social and child protection services not anticipated? Why have Black and minority ethnic communities not been better protected from a pandemic that targets them disproportionately?

Why did the system substituted for exams fail so completely? Why wasn’t better use made of the summer lull in new infections?

Why is the chancellor spending so much less on winter job protection schemes than his European counterparts? Why has the prime minister now lost the confidence of so many of his own MPs, never mind voters, and which leaders have responded to this pandemic with effective actions rather than just words?

“There will be an important moment to look back, analyse, reflect and to learn lessons,” the government insists. “As the Prime Minister has said, this will include an independent inquiry at the appropriate time.”

If the subject were a disaster that had come and gone there might be a case for this government-knows-best approach. But this disaster is with us indefinitely. It needs real-time mitigation. The government doesn’t know best but its ministries and agencies – including the NHS – do and have hard-won experience that we can’t afford to waste.

The appropriate time for the inquiry is now.