PM told to establish Covid public inquiry ‘now’ by leading think tanks

Joe Gammie, PA
·4-min read

A public inquiry into the country’s response to the pandemic should be launched immediately, two leading think tanks have said.

The Institute for Government (IfG) said that Prime Minister Boris Johnson should establish his promised public inquiry into the Government’s handling of coronavirus in May.

This would give it time to determine its terms of reference and complete preparatory work such as appointing a secretary and counsel before beginning its investigations in September after Parliament’s summer recess, it added.

Meanwhile, the King’s Fund said Government should start work to establish a public inquiry into England’s response to Covid-19 “immediately” so that lessons can be learnt ahead of future threats.

In a new report, published on Thursday, the IfG said that while other countries also struggled there was “genuine concern” the UK had come out “far worse” than it might otherwise have.

It added: “More than 150,000 people have died during the pandemic. The economy is in recession, unemployment and national debt have soared.

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“Few lives have been left untouched – and there are myriad costs to the livelihoods of adults, and educational costs to children, across the UK.

“While other countries have similarly struggled, there is a genuine concern that the UK has come out far worse than it might otherwise have.

“The public, politicians and the media rightly want to know why. To answer this the Government should, as we have argued throughout this paper, establish a public inquiry now; it should open on parliament’s return from recess on September 6.

“An inquiry has been promised by the Prime Minister. He needs to deliver.”

The IfG also said that with the worst of the second wave having passed, Mr Johnson was “wrong” to claim that launching an inquiry would distract from the “urgent work of managing the crisis”.

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The King’s Fund’s director of policy Sally Warren branded the suggestion that Government was “too busy” for an inquiry as a “poor excuse” and said first steps could be taken without distracting civil servants from tackling the pandemic.

She added: “The suggestion that everyone in Government is too busy for an inquiry is a poor excuse.

“There are first steps that can be taken to establish the inquiry – such as appointing an independent chair or agreeing term of reference – that will not distract from the efforts of public servants responding to Covid-19.”

Her comments come a day after England’s deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said now was not the time for an inquiry.

Coronavirus – Wed Apr 28, 2021
England’s deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van Tam speaking during a Downing Street briefing (Kirsty Wigglesworth/PA Images)

Asked at a Downing Street briefing on Wednesday when an inquiry should take place, Prof Van-Tam said: “My views on the inquiry are it is very important but please, not now.

“We are far too busy still engaged in cementing in the gains that we have made and making sure that we don’t have anything like the same turbulence next winter we had this winter.”

Meanwhile, in its report, the King’s Fund set out a framework for the scope of the inquiry around a number of key lines of inquiry.

One of them is examining the public health response to the pandemic including rules over international travel, the timing and extent of lockdowns and the measures put in place to support and enable compliance with these steps.

Others include the intrinsic risk to England, the health care and adult social care system response – including provision of testing and personal protective equipment (PPE) – and the vaccination programme.

The think tank said that England’s response to the pandemic had been “mixed, with early mistakes contributing to one of the world’s worst excess death rates in 2020, but on other measures such as the vaccine rollout England was among the most successful countries.

A public inquiry would help to “unpick what went well, what went wrong and how best to protect the country against future threats”, it added.

Its chief executive Richard Murray said: “Now is the time to begin work on a public inquiry.

“The future course of Covid-19 remains uncertain and there is an ever-present risk of new diseases emerging.

“A thorough inquiry to ensure the country is ready to face future threats should not be shunted to the bottom of the Government’s to-do list.

“People across Government are undoubtedly working hard responding to the pandemic, but thousands of families mourning the deaths of loved ones will want to know that that the government is doing everything it can to avoid others suffering the same fate.”