This article is an excerpt from the below publication laying out the steps to ensure there is learning from the COVID public enquiry.
People at every level have worked incredibly hard over the last two years. Yet what is not in doubt is that the UK has performed badly, exhibiting among the highest levels of excess mortality and economic harm, as well as the largest debt and tax burden in living memory. Hopefully we can perform better in the way we learn lessons from the pandemic.
The key points
- We need multiple inquiries rather than a single one. The complexity of the issues in health, education, the economy and society are far beyond the capacity of a single inquiry.
- This is even more obvious if the UK inquiry is to reach reasonably rapid conclusions, with, perhaps, an interim report in 2022 and a final one before the end of 2023. There is no plausible way for a single inquiry to be both broad enough and fast enough. This implies the need for a core inquiry on decisions that were made at the heart of the UK Government, but with encouragement for a network of parallel inquiries that are focused on particular sectors: hospitals, schools, the economy. This is partly a matter of logic: although some issues cut across these fields, most of the lessons they need to address are specific and distinct.
- The inquiry process needs to include opportunities for airing peoples’ experiences: what it was like to be locked down, in care homes, fearful, on the frontline in hospitals. This cathartic aspect of the inquiry will be vital.
- The (multiple) inquiries need to commission evidence in the way research does: i.e. syntheses of evidence and findings around issues such as behaviour, compliance, modelling or mental health.
- The inquiries need to be designed with a clear focus on implementation. Past inquiries were disbanded when they reported, leaving the job of implementation and monitoring to the government. This cannot be acceptable in the case of a COVID inquiry.
- The space for the inquiry needs to reflect its ethos – a physical space that signals a willingness to learn rather than a confrontational courtroom, with hearings being held around the country in order to engage with those who were worst affected by the pandemic (such as some minority communities, disabled people, and care home residents).
- While a core part of the inquiry will need to be formal and judicial, with sworn testimony, most of it doesn’t need to be and will benefit from gathering of evidence, insights and experiences in a less rigid and formal way.