20 July 2020

A long, drawn-out Covid inquiry is inevitable – but starting it too soon would be a big mistake


Boris Johnson has announced an ‘independent inquiry’ into the Government’s handling of Covid-19. Things have not gone well, and the Prime Minister probably had little option but to agree to an inquiry. However, what this will mean in practice is unclear.

The UK, unlike some other countries, is very fond of government-funded inquiries. Between 2005 and 2018, the National Audit Office reported, 26 such investigations were concluded.They can take different forms. 

Those carried out under the 2005 Inquiries Act (‘statutory inquiries’) are seen, not always accurately, to have the greatest independence. They have clear procedures, are conducted in public, have powers to require relevant documents, and can subpoena witnesses. Recent examples include the mid-Staffordshire Inquiry (into the failings of a hospital trust) and the Leveson Inquiry (into the conduct of the press). 

But other possibilities exist. Some important non-statutory investigations have been conducted by Privy Council committees: the Falkland Islands Inquiry headed by Lord Franks, and the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq conflict. The advantage of this format is that the inquiry is conducted in private and can consider secret intelligence.

Other non-statutory examples are ad hoc, with terms, procedures and people involved being determined by relevant ministers. The Hutton Inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly was set up Tony Blair; the Deepcut Review into the deaths of young soldiers was instituted by the Ministry of Defence. Both were headed, as is usually the case, by lawyers. But the Morecambe Bay Review – a rather similar case to the mid-Staffordshire Inquiry, you might think – was set up by the Secretary of State for Health and run by Dr Bill Kirkup, a public health expert.

What is the point of inquiries? Two decades ago Lord (Geoffrey) Howe drew on his experience to distinguish six functions: first, establishing the facts; second, learning from events; third, ‘catharsis’ (opportunities for victims to get closure, or for reconciliation between opposed groups); fourth, public reassurance that matters are being resolved; fifth, ‘accountability, blame and retribution’; and finally, political considerations (demonstrating that something is being done about public concern).

Since Lord Howe’s day, politics has become more partisan and vicious. Public inquiries have become more diffuse and outcomes slower to reach and less satisfactory. I was a teenager at the time of the 1966 Aberfan disaster, in which 144 people (mainly children) died when a slag heap collapsed on a school. The inquiry took just nine months, concentrated on the facts, spelt out who to blame (the National Coal Board and nine named staff members) and ensured that such a disaster was never repeated. 

Compare this with the Grenfell Tower fire, which killed 72. The human tragedy was similar, but the Grenfell Inquiry has already taken nearly three years, seems nowhere near completion, and has been widened to include accusations of racism in local authority housing allocation. Rather like the Steven Lawrence Inquiry, the Grenfell tragedy is being seen as part of wider socio-economic problems. No clear responsibility for the disaster has yet emerged.

Despite a widening of its initial scope, the Grenfell Inquiry is still relatively narrow in its remit. Can this be said of the Independent Inquiry into Sexual Abuse? This has been through one complete reorganisation, is now on its fourth Chair and has just entered into its seventh year of deliberation.

Whatever purpose it had seems to have disappeared; it has produced very little in the way of hard facts and serves largely to provide Howe’s ‘catharsis’ for those who have suffered from sexual abuse. Given greatly increased awareness of child sexual abuse and changes in the law to protect young people, it seems unlikely that this inquiry will eventually produce further useful recommendations. But it meanders on, year after year. 

It has a way to go, though, to beat Lord Saville’s Inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday, which ran from 1998 to 2010 and cost £200 million.

The National Audit Office, in its 2018 report on inquiries, did not get involved in assessing value for money, though it observed that sponsoring departments did little to monitor their costs. The NAO looked in detail at the outcome of ten inquiries: they spent on average 102 days hearing testimony from 200 witnesses and considered more than 52,000 documents. They produced 620 recommendations, of which just under half were fully accepted by  governments.

The inquiry into the pandemic will almost certainly have to be a statutory inquiry, held in public, and will inevitably take longer, consider more evidence, and use more resources than the average investigation.

Given today’s climate, when some on social media are already calling for the Prime Minister to be charged with murder or manslaughter, it will be important for the inquiry to concentrate on establishing the facts, learning from events and public reassurance. The danger is that it will concentrate rather too much on some of the other areas Howe described – catharis, blame and retribution.

A suitable Chair will be hard to find, given the government’s problems with the judiciary. Nor would a public health figure be suitable, given likely criticisms of the health establishment; in any case, investigation should involve consideration of the impact on business and the economy rather than simply the health aspects.

The inquiry, though inevitable, will be a painful and controversial process which will satisfy nobody. The government should resist calls – already being heard from opposition politicians and the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice advocacy group – for this process to begin immediately. 

Asking ministers and civil servants to devote time to justifying, documenting  and explaining decisions while still concentrating on handling the pandemic and its economic consequences would be foolish in the extreme. It would be like dragging Churchill in front of an immediate inquiry after the fall of Singapore. 

In a crazy year, that would be one of the craziest things yet.

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Professor Len Shackleton is an Editorial and Research Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.