Matthew Claughton considers the forthcoming inquiry into the Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic
The government made it clear on 17th November 2020 that a public inquiry into the Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic will take place. Earlier this month the Prime Minister indicated that the inquiry would start in Spring 2022 but has come under pressure from various quarters to bring the start date forward. Emphasis has been placed on the fact that nothing should distract from the current handling of the pandemic.
Current thinking as to likely terms of reference
Essentially a public inquiry focuses upon what happened, how it happened, what went wrong and where improvements can be made. It should then consider what can be done to prevent the same thing happening again. The Government has stated that a Covid inquiry should focus on refining policy and learning lessons so that the country is ‘better prepared for any future pandemic’. Accountability will not be ignored and the reasons for decisions need to be understood but the emphasis must be on looking forward not backwards.
The terms of reference are not yet known but following Dominic Cummings’ evidence to MPs on 26th May 2021 before a joint hearing of the Health and Social Care and the Science and Technology Committees is it possible that there might be a shift in emphasis in terms of the potential terms of reference.
Evidence of Dominic Cummings before MPs 26th May 2021
Since his fall out with Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings has made a number of allegations against the Prime Minister, which were repeated before MPs on the 26th May.
Cummings suggests, in the clearest of terms that lockdown came too late. He accuses the Government of not being on a “war footing” when the virus first emerged and “lots of key people were literally skiing”. He suggests that Health Secretary Matt Hancock used Chief Government Scientist Sir Patrick Vallance and Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty as a “shield” for government failings. He called frontline workers and civil servants “lions led by donkeys”. He stated that the Government had failed to shield care homes and it was “shocking” that untested people had been sent to homes.
On lockdown, Cummings suggests that achieving “herd immunity” was the official plan early last year. Regarding the second lockdown, Cummings states that Johnson rejected the recommendation of September 2020 for a second lockdown in England, “He was ignoring the advice,” he added, saying the PM believed he had been pushed into imposing the first one and that the economic harm done by lockdown would be worse than Covid itself.
Likely impact of the Cummings’ testimony
Arguably, there are two limbs to the Cummings’ criticism. Firstly, that of overall preparedness and competence. Secondly, the timing of, and willingness to impose, lockdowns.
Marcus Shepheard, of the Institute for Government, considered the position last week suggesting that Cummings is right to call for the Covid inquiry to begin immediately. Shepheard referenced the ‘huge territory’ covered in Cummings’ evidence session.
Shepheard cited specific policy; care homes, testing, procurement, schools, lockdowns, the tier system, Eat Out to Help Out and travel restrictions, as areas the inquiry will need to explore.
Consideration needs to be given to how advice was provided by officials and expert bodies such as SAGE; and how other forces, such as media coverage and backbench lobbying, influenced key decisions.
Cummings is clearly intent on painting Boris Johnson as an anti-lockdown Prime Minister and the Government is already under criticism from all sides for initially following a strategy of “herd immunity”.
As early as February 2020 Johnson gave a speech to business community in which he talked about the opportunities of resisting lockdown whilst other countries followed that policy. In early March Johnson suggested that one way to deal with Covid 19 was to “take it on the chin”. In mid March Patrick Valance described the desirability of achieving a level of immunity. Many will recall Johnson confirming, at an early press conference that he continued to shake hands with those he met.
It certainly looks as though in the early days of the pandemic government policy was aligned to the ‘UK Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy 2011’ which specifically ruled out lockdowns. It is understood that the World Health Organisation had a similar strategy in place as did other governments.
It seems as though the criticism levelled at the Prime Minister in relation to delay and failure to take the pandemic seriously will be a key issue for the Inquiry to consider. It will certainly be used by Johnson’s political rivals when questioning his leadership throughout the pandemic.
The extent to which the Inquiry will consider whether the popular presumption that lockdown was inevitable remains to be seen.
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Article written by Matthew Claughton. Olliers have many years of experience of individuals appearing as witnesses or core participants in public inquiries. We can advise and represent you throughout all stages of the process. Olliers are currently representing both a core participant and a key witness during the Manchester Arena Bombing Inquiry. If you require representation in relation to an inquiry please contact Ruth Peters or Matthew Claughton on 0161 8341515 for an initial discussion as to how Olliers can assist.