The good news is that Boris Johnson has finally announced a public inquiry into the United Kingdom’s Covid-19 pandemic. Public inquiries remain pivotal in our public life, even today, and it was inconceivable that there would not be one on what the prime minister this week called “a trauma like no other”. For many months though, Mr Johnson has prevaricated on the timing and the details. It always seemed to be never quite the right moment. Now, amid expectations that the worst of the pandemic may possibly be ending at least in this country, that excuse is running out of road.
The bad news is that Mr Johnson is still playing for time. The public inquiry will not start until spring 2022. This is a ludicrous delay. When it gets under way, it will be lengthy and extensive. Although the terms of reference have not been set, Mr Johnson acknowledges that they are likely to be wide. That means the inquiry will probably have to cover, among other things, Britain’s pandemic preparedness, the state’s lockdown and economic responses, the record of the NHS, the problems in social care, the impact on ethnic minorities and other at-risk groups, test-and-trace efforts, medical treatments and vaccines, modelling, statistics, public messaging and international comparisons. It is a huge agenda.
No inquiry starting next spring is likely to be complete before 2024 at the earliest. Even this may be optimistic. The net result is that the inquiry’s conclusions into the most serious peacetime emergency of modern times will not be available before the likely date of the next general election. This needlessly delays the learning and implementation of lessons, creating further risk. It is also a deliberately undemocratic choice. It insults the people of this country, who have been through so much, and in particular the families of the more than 150,000 people who have died in the pandemic.
Parliament and Britain’s doctors must press Mr Johnson to bring the start date forward. There is no valid reason why the inquiry could not start in the summer or autumn. There will soon be new opportunities to force the issue. The existing Commons inquiry on pandemic lessons conducted by the joint health and science select committees is a particularly high-profile one. This will take evidence from Mr Johnson’s former consigliere Dominic Cummings later this month. The committees’ report itself is due by July. Both events may make Mr Johnson’s timetable unsustainable if pressure is effective.
Several decisions can be taken in the coming weeks anyway, so that the inquiry proper is able to hit the ground running whenever it begins. Work on these preliminaries can and should start now. In terms of emotional intelligence, the first priority is to hold proper advance consultation with victims’ families about the inquiry format and their own priorities. The prime minister seemed to tell MPs this week that he would do this, but he was not unequivocal. He needs to make his intentions crystal clear.
Mr Johnson’s announcement specified “an independent public inquiry on a statutory basis, with full powers under the Inquiries Act of 2005, including the ability to compel the production of all relevant materials, and take oral evidence in public, under oath”. This may seem a wide-ranging and transparent commitment. But it leaves some questions unanswered. It says nothing about either the chair and composition of the inquiry, or the terms of reference. It also leaves the geographical scope unstated.
These issues need to be nailed down now, through genuine consultation. The inquiry should be chaired by a judge. The terms of reference should be wide. Public confidence and the need for independence require both. The inquiry should also be unitary, covering the whole of the country, including the devolved nations. This has been, after all, a pandemic that has affected the whole UK, and the whole UK should be reflected in the panel that conducts the inquiry into it.