UK Covid inquiry kicks off

Why are we looking into the UK government's handling of the COVID pandemic?
09 June 2023

Interview with 

Emma Norris, Institute for Government


COVID vaccine in gloved hand


One of the most important public inquiries in British history is getting underway in a bid to determine what ministers got right and wrong - before, during and after the Covid-19 pandemic. Emma Norris is the deputy director at the Institute for Government - which is an independent think-tank that has been calling for a Covid-19 inquiry.

Emma - So the Covid inquiry is a public inquiry, a kind of investigation, that is looking at what happened during the pandemic in a whole range of ways, and how prepared we were for the pandemic. How good was the decision making that governments took? How did the health and care service respond? And how did the pandemic affect different people, young people, for instance. So the purpose of the inquiry is to look at some of those different questions and try and work out what happened, why did it happen, and perhaps most importantly, how can we stop this happening again? Or at least ensure that we are as prepared as we can be for any future pandemic or similar incident.

Chris - Why do organisations, yourselves included, think we need this? Is the learning not sufficiently obvious already?

Emma - The experience of the pandemic is really unusual in that it has affected almost everybody in society, almost all institutions across government and the public sector. And indeed, lots of the private sector were involved in some way. And so really you need to create an institution, an organisation, a body that's capable of looking right across what occurred and asking, how can we do better? Now, it might be, and I would expect that, the inquiry will find that there are some things that we did really well and it's worth capturing that, but it's inevitable that they will find some things that didn't work so well and that government and other people need to take into account and learn from so we can do better next time. It's really normal to undertake a public inquiry when there's been some form of tragedy, scandal or just a very serious incident. I think something like the pandemic clearly meets that standard for when you need a proper, independent institution that can look at what happened and learn.

Chris - Are other countries doing something similar?

Emma - Lots of other countries are doing something similar, although not in exactly the same way all across Europe. For instance, there are inquiries taking place trying to learn from the experience of responding to the pandemic. We've gone for something called a statutory public inquiry. So it has legal powers, it's very wide ranging, it will last quite a long time. The public hearings won't finish until 2026, some other countries have gone for slightly different models. So, for instance, Sweden went for something much faster, all focused on speed learning quickly. We are doing something much more wide ranging, but most countries want to do something that helps them just reflect on what happened during the pandemic.

Chris - Isn't speed of the essence here? Are we potentially trading a big spend for more knowledge that might be out of date? I'm a bit cynical about other reports and inquiries we've had historically about other sorts of major events. We are worried about the next pandemic, which could occur at any time. Is it not really important that we get this quick?

Emma - You've just touched, Chris, on one of the key arguments that sits at the heart of how you go about doing these kinds of investigations. Do you go for something really broad that tries to capture as much as you possibly can, but inevitably that means it's going to be a really long process? Or do you go for something really tight in the way that Sweden has - only consider a few core issues and report quickly? I can see both sides of the argument. I would say that the Covid inquiry has tried to structure itself in a way that to some extent gives you the best of both worlds. So it's not just one big inquiry, it's broken itself up into different modules. The one that's already started and the public hearing start for next week is all about how prepared we were, how ready were we for a pandemic. The next module that's starting later this year is looking at government, central government decision making. Then we've got future modules on the health sector and the care sector. Now, after each of those modules, they will publish an interim report with a set of recommendations. So we are not going to be waiting until 2026 or 2027 to hear what the Covid inquiry thinks about what should change. We'll probably find out quite early next year, I think, what their recommendations are on how we can be better prepared and probably at a later point next year on what the lessons are for central government decision making. So they'll be more a drip feed of recommendations, if you like, over the next four or five years. But you are right that one of the dangers is that, by the time it reports, everything will have changed. The public sector is changing. It's learning all the time. And so something that the inquiry will need to do is stay on top of not just what was the government like when the pandemic happened, but what is it like when the inquiry reports and how does it make sure it's recommendations reflect the reality of government rather than just looking backwards.

Chris - Who are they going to talk to?

Emma - A really wide range of people. The kind of people you'd expect to be called to provide written statements or give witness statements at hearings. Medical professionals, epidemiologists, but economists as well, policy makers. You'd also expect to hear from decision makers. So officials, civil servants for instance, but also politicians. And we know that for this first module for which public hearings are starting next week, we're likely to hear from the former Prime Minister David Cameron and probably the former Chancellor George Osborne, partly to understand how much they prepared for a possible pandemic. The inquiry also wants to dig into how some of their decisions, their policies during their time in government, how they affected how prepared we were looking at things like austerity. So it's a really wide range of officials, politicians and experts that we would expect to see called up to the inquiry.

Chris - So why are they after Boris Johnson's WhatsApp?

Emma - The Covid inquiry is interested in all forms of evidence on what the government was thinking, what it was doing, what it was talking about when it was making decisions about the pandemic. And they say that as part of that they want access to private diaries, notebooks and the WhatsApps of Boris Johnson, but I'm sure they're going to ask for similar material from other politicians and officials. Now, the cabinet office, part of the centre of government in the UK, is saying, "no, you're going too far. That material's private." And where it is, as they say, kind of irrelevant to the inquiry, they don't want them to have access to it. The inquiry is saying it's up to them to decide what's relevant, not up to the government. So there's this wrangle going on at the moment that's really about who gets to decide what is relevant to the Covid inquiry.


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