Boris Johnson has told parliament this week there will be a full public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic. It’s something many people have been demanding for many months. But the reaction has been pretty sceptical. He says it will start in the spring and it will be independent. But all the experts in these matters tell us it will be a very long time – years rather than months – before it reports. Does that matter? Are you suspicious that the timing might mean the next general election will have come and gone before the report is published so that Mr Johnson will (probably) be safely back in Number Ten.
Nobody doubts the need for an inquiry. The covid death toll in this country has passed 128,000. Only a dozen countries in the world have seen more deaths in relation to the size of their population. That alone demands serious questions being answered by those who led the fight against the virus. The existence of any deadly virus may be an act of God. The way it’s dealt with is the act of man and Boris Johnson was the man in charge. Not that you’d have known it at the very start. His critics pointed out that he apparently couldn’t find the time to attend what turned out to be some pretty important Cobra meetings.
We are all only too familiar with the horror of those early days. Covid was already rampaging across many countries while we were still allowing vast crowds to enjoy themselves at the Cheltenham race meeting and rock concerts. The government chose to listen to scientific advisers telling them to let it spread through the population for fear that the NHS would be overwhelmed. ‘Herd immunity’ was the gospel of the day.
It wasn’t until March 23 that the first lockdown was ordered and by then it was too late. We watched and worried as one government fiasco followed another. Thousands of old people were dumped from hospitals into nursing homes to die. There was a desperate shortage of the right equipment to save brave medical staff risking their lives every day and, when PPE contracts were handed out, suspicions were raised that ministers were favouring old friends or party donors rather than sourcing them responsibly. Panic had taken over. And greed.
Billions were wasted on a track and trace programme that many said could have nipped the virus in the bud if it had been handled properly. They pointed to countries like South Korea and Taiwan which had shown how it could be done. In September Johnson was being told by his most senior scientific advisers to implement another lockdown. He chose not to. Panic ruled.
But then the vaccines came to the nation’s rescue. The programme went almost flawlessly. The virus is in retreat and – with some cautious glances over the shoulder at the Indian variant - we are daring to think the worst is behind us and normal service is about to be resumed across the land. Until the next time. And there will be a next time. There always is with viruses.
One of the reasons we were so hopelessly unprepared in the early stages of the covid crisis is the suspicion – born out by Whitehall insiders - that the governments had been preparing for a different war. The potential enemy was meant to be a new form of flu and great efforts were made to build up stocks of new flu vaccines. But Covid-19, as we were to learn to our cost, is a coronavirus, which is very different.
Too many assumptions were made that turned out to be baseless. As the philosopher George Santayana put it a century ago, those who do not remember the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them. That’s one of the reasons many believe not only must there be a full, independent, public inquiry but that it must be done speedily.
One reason for the scepticism greeting the prime minister’s announcement was that the history of public inquiries is not one to boast about – at least not in terms of the time it takes to conduct them.
The argument of his critics goes something like this. Let’s assume that the pandemic inquiry does indeed conclude that this government made some truly shocking decisions which meant many people died unnecessarily. Worse, that some of those decisions were taken for party political motives or even favours to old friends rather than purely what was best for the nation.
Curtains for Boris at the next election eh?
Well… not exactly. Because he will almost certainly have moved to pastures new. The inquiry will not report until long after the next election even if this parliament runs its full term. That’s not an assumption based on conjecture – but on history. Of five major public inquiries over the last couple of decades the shortest lasted for seven years, the longest twelve. That is, quite simply, ridiculous, say the critics. Worse, it’s dangerous.
Sometimes public inquiries deal with highly complex matters. A classic example is the Grenfell fire inquiry. Every other day it seems to reveal disturbing details about technical shortcomings and sharp practises in the building industry that led to so many completely unnecessary deaths. The urgency is obvious. So it is with Covid. We cannot and should not wait for years to learn lessons.
Another concern expressed by the government’s critics is that the prime minister did not refer to the fact that civil servants have already conducted a review yet their findings have not been made public. They want to know why and ask: Aren’t we entitled to know?
Nor did he mention the investigations being carried out by MPs on two important select committees. Their key witness in ten days time will be a certain Dominic Cummings, who was Mr Johnson’s chief adviser until he got the boot. If there’s anyone who knows where the bodies are buried (or stacked high) it’s him. And he is a man with a grudge.
There is a strong view in Westminster (as you might expect) that we undervalue select committees. MPs point out that they do an important job holding the powerful to account and they could do much more with more resources. The former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who now chairs the health select committee, believes they should be given the money to employ researchers skilled in examining government papers and briefing MPs. He also says that they should have the power to force witnesses to appear. I’ve seen an effective system in action in, predictably, Washington.
I remember standing on the lawn of the White House on a hot August day in 1974 watching Richard Nixon board the presidential helicopter for the last time. The most powerful man in the world had been forced to resign after an inquiry in the Senate that had begun little more than a year earlier. Day after day America watched their president’s most senior aides being grilled mercilessly under oath by well-briefed senators. I was left with the strong impression that we could do with some of that here.
Something else I remember is standing in the streets of Belfast only hours after the insane policy of internment had been announced. It meant people could be imprisoned without trial. The city erupted in violence. Many protesters, angry at the denial of a basic human right, were shot dead by British soldiers.
This week a coroner declared that ten of them had been entirely innocent of any wrongdoing. Downing Street said Boris Johnson had ‘apologised unreservedly’. They had been the victims of an unjustified use of force. It had taken an unbelievable fifty years for their relatives to get the verdict they deserved.
Everyone can agree that we must never allow such a betrayal of innocent people to happen again. But what, if anything, can we learn from it in terms of our own inquiries? And from the way the US Congress conducts its investigations. Do you trust the pandemic inquiry to discover what we need to know to make us safer in the future? And, above all, do you think it will deliver its findings in a timely manner or will we have to wait many year?
Let us know what you think.