THIS assertion is not meant to impugn the chair of the UK Covid Inquiry, former Appeal Court judge Lady Hallett, or to suggest that it should be abandoned or that no good will come of it. But failure is pre-determined.
The inquiry is independent in theory, but is set up by the government and has a government-selected chair, a senior civil servant as her principal assistant, and has released its Civil Service-style draft terms of reference (ToR) for which consultation closes on April 7. As they stand, the ToR miss many of the big issues and are too broad and complex to be the basis of an effective report.
The inquiry overview has already had to state in this context that it ‘will therefore have to balance its task of conducting thorough investigations with the need to make meaningful and prompt recommendations’. Bearing in mind the complexity of the subject, this looks like an impossible task and is a ready-made excuse for not getting to the bottom of what happened, why, and who was responsible.
The terms are laid out in a way which suggests that the focus will be on the effect of public health decisions on narrow groups, such as prisons, the justice system, immigration and housing. We should note that these reflect government organisational divisions and responsibilities.
Although lockdowns and other non-pharmaceutical interventions are on the list they are put together, and amount to just one of the 16 items which will each be investigated by reference to central, devolved, and local government impacts. This means the inquiry is likely to be bogged down in complexity, regional complaining and blaming. The overall heading is ‘public health decision-making and its consequences’ rather than the impact of all the government’s decision-making at the time, some of which was only marginally about public health.
We then have ‘the response of the health and care sector’ and ‘the economic response’, with the latter having just three parts to the health sector’s seven. Those three are focused on government spending and support measures, again reflecting a typical civil service focus on government action rather the overall impact on society and its wellbeing, of the Covid-19 measures and the public’s reaction to the disease itself.
The second main section of the inquiry will ‘identify the lessons to be learned’ and is orientated to future preparations. It again looks likely to focus on health and favourite government topics such as people with protected characteristics, victims, health and care sector workers and key workers. What about the rest of the working population?
As result of this construction there is no guarantee that the collateral damage of the measures will be approached as a topic, and there is no sense from it that the private sector has been wrecked by the government’s measures to the extent that a vast financial bailout was required which in turn has wrecked the public finances for years to come. This aspect should be addressed more precisely.
There is no guaranteed investigation of the morality of removing human rights and longstanding freedoms from individuals and handing them to the government to control, or the decisions to prevent families from seeing their dying relatives and even comforting each other at their funerals.
In the ToR there is one section among the 16 identified pandemic impacts on ‘the safeguarding of public funds’ but no mention of the fraud which has apparently already caused the Chancellor to write off £4.3billion of public funds from just one aspect of the business support. This merits a public inquiry of its own.
Looking at the gaps in topics to be investigated, there doesn’t seem to be scope for an analysis of the central question of why society had to be shut down to cope with a respiratory disease that had an almost guaranteed survival rate, and was minor in effect for all but the frail elderly and those with serious underlying health conditions.
There is nothing on Parliament, the egregious use of the Public Health Act (1984), the use and abuse of Statutory Instruments (SIs) or the curtailment of debate and scrutiny. There looks to be no scope for an analysis of democratic accountability for life-changing measures such as enforced isolation and compulsory vaccination. Will the inquiry get round to analysing why were there no impact assessments or cost-benefit analyses before the introduction of costly and disruptive restrictions? Where were the exit strategies?
There is no mention of an investigation into the violent and uncalled-for tactics of the police over lawful protests and innocent walks in the park, and government guidance being interpreted as law.
Why was there slavish mainstream media support for the measures and Ofcom-approved censorship of dissenting view across outlets including Facebook, Twitter, Google, and the main television channels. Will the inquiry ignore these activities?
Where in the ToR is the section looking at government propaganda and the Behavioural Insight Team’s attempts, at least partly successful, to scare the public with gruesome advertising, threats and emotional blackmail?
There is no obvious section that would look at the morality of vaccine passports and the significance of creating two classes of citizens, one with inferior rights, in the style of China.
The inquiry is simply too unwieldy. To cover all these issues would take many years, yet the ToR state that it will produce its reports and any recommendations in a ‘timely manner’.
The inquiry should instead be divided into separately overseen areas run in parallel, with genuinely independent chairs and members who are expert in different fields and the power to use QCs to interrogate all those responsible for government action and determining the impact of the disease and the measures to combat it. Alternatively there should be a much shorter interrogative initial inquiry to establish the areas which require priority detailed scrutiny followed by a series of parallel inquiries into those key issues and outcomes, again with powers to coerce witness attendance and statements.
Even then, too many people in authority have too much to lose for the inquiry’s targeted ‘factual narrative account’ to be faithfully uncovered and the inquiry-commissioning government itself has much to lose.
One key witness, former Health Secretary Matt Hancock, has got his retaliation in early with a hot favourite for understatement of the year: ‘I wouldn’t want to portray the pandemic response as faultless . . .’ Indeed not, Matt, and you won’t be the only one flailing around to protect your reputation.
Expect repeatedly to hear the dishonourable words, ‘We had no choice.’