“It must never happen again!”
How often do we hear governments utter those words as they solemnly set up a public inquiry and promise that there will be a fearless pursuit of the truth? “Lessons”, we are told with great seriousness, “will be learned”.
Unfortunately, the track record on actual outcomes of inquiries is more dismal.
Evidence and learning from inquiries
The Iraq War began in 2003. The inquiry was announced in 2009 and published in 2016. By which time most people had already made their mind up long ago about whether a British prime minister lied to them in order to launch a war.
How many people changed their mind about Tony Blair when the results were published? Has there really been a fundamental shift in British military thinking as a result? Or an improvement in the honesty of British politicians?
As for the Grenfell Tower tragedy, we are still waiting for the most important second half of the inquiry to be completed. After all the evidence the inquiry has heard about building developers making cynical decisions to save a bit of money by putting people’s lives at risk, the British building regulations remain remarkably lax.
It is still normal for a building developer to employ their own regulator. The “competent person self-certification scheme” remains in place despite all the deaths and despite the government agreeing to pay out £3.5bn of public money to help repair a small proportion of the dangerous faults that were created.
What would we learn from a covid inquiry?
No doubt we’ll eventually get a report published and it is highly likely to make some hard-hitting comments that may result in some changes. Yet we already know that the main perpetrators will get away with their corporate crimes. Because the chair of the inquiry has had to grant them immunity from prosecution in order to persuade them to give evidence.
So, we’re entitled to a few doubts about the value of conducting an inquiry into the Covid-19 outbreak. There isn’t much point in taking up the time of people who are busy fighting a pandemic if the outcome of the investigation is only going to emerge slowly years later and the government is not interested in implementing serious change.
If we are really interested in learning something in time to actually change policy, then it is important to start asking some very tough questions right now and to expect some rapid answers.
What do we need to learn?
We need to know many things, including:
- What actions do we need to take to avoid the next pandemic? Was this one just bad luck or the product of bad practices of deforestation, intensive animal farming, and the transport of wild animals for food? Will we just wait for the next pandemic to jump from one species to another, or will we do something to limit the risk?
- Which disease-control strategies work and which don’t? Was it a good idea to encourage around 200,000 people to go to the Cheltenham races? Was it a good idea to allow foreign summer holidays last year, which allowed people to bring back new strains? What was the cost, human and economic, of the government-sanctioned Christmas get-together?
- What’s the best way to procure vital bits of equipment in a hurry? Should ministers approach their mates and offer them large sums of money to do things they have no experience of doing?
- How does a government set up an efficient test trace and isolate system? Does it need to spend £37bn on an ambition of setting up world-beating new systems? Or might it be better to use organisations like local authorities or the NHS, with relevant experience and local knowledge?
- Why and how do new variants of viruses emerge? Was the English variant down to bad luck or bad management? Did the existence of a large pool of infected people in the country with the 3rd-worst outbreak in the world make mutations more likely to occur here than elsewhere?
- Why were millions of passengers allowed to fly into the UK during a pandemic without being asked to go into quarantine? Why did it take nearly ten months before a limited quarantine system was put in place, when other countries had already done this?
- What lessons can we learn from the countries such as China, South Korea or Singapore, which dealt with the problems quickly and effectively?
- What lessons can we learn from places that made serious mistakes, like the United States under Trump, Brazil, or Tanzania?
- What made Oxford AstraZeneca’s public-private collaboration on research, production and distribution so effective? Who gained financially from the attempts to discredit the only vaccine that was being sold at cost? Why does it cost $14.7 for a dose of Pfizer vaccine and only $3 for a dose of an Oxford one? Who profits from the difference?
- Why did so many members of the government’s inner circle ignore their own rules? Why did the prime minister boast about shaking hands in a Covid ward? Why was policy being made for so long by a man who thought it was a good idea to travel from London to Barnard Castle at a time when other people weren’t allowed to visit dying relatives?
An inquiry should influence policy
If an inquiry will properly investigate these issues and publish its outcomes in time to make a real difference to future policy, then this would be time and money well spent. If we’re to wait until after the disease is under control and then face months of an inquiry looking into more convenient questions, then there’s little to be gained.
We already know that Johnson will smugly and inaccurately claim that his government acted for the very best at all times in response to problems that no one could have foreseen earlier or acted on with more determination.
And we also know that China, where the problem emerged without warning, has had the disease under effective control for months, has been out of lockdown since the summer, had a much lower death toll per head of population than Britain, and saw its economy grow by 2 percent last year and its national debt remain under control.
Perhaps some lessons could be learned from that.